Decolonizing through Public History

Last Friday, I attended a talk by Dr. Monica Patterson (of Concordia University) called “Towards a Public History of Childhood in South Africa.” While it was engaging on a number of levels, it got me thinking about something that has recently been on my mind a lot: the Western academy’s colonial relationship with many of the non-Western, Southern, and more generally subaltern communities and places it studies. 

Dr. Patterson’s recent research has been on the different representations of (African) childhood within the context of the anti-apartheid struggle – representations by the apartheid regime, the groups fighting against it, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and, not least of all, by the now grown children who lived through the movement. Her work deals not only with representations of children, but also their role as political agents, and the ways in which their agency was/is/has been denied by various interest groups. 

A significant part of her research has been in collecting oral histories from men and women who were children during the anti-apartheid struggle. This is what really caught my attention, since I’m going to be doing a lot of oral histories over the summer and have been puzzling over the power relationships that these might entail. This is also where the “Public History” in the title of her talk comes in. 

Part of the problem with Western academia (and a well recognized one which is being tackled by a number of people in diverse ways) is its extractive practices which are, or at least can be, very colonial in their nature. Information is extracted from a place, a group, or even an individual, who is somehow disadvantaged when compared to the academic in question. But instead of this information being processed and then given back to wherever or whomever provided it, it is circulated in the West, for a Western academic audience. There is no dialogue with the people the work is actually about. This, in turn, perpetuates the notion that the subject/object of Western research cannot or will not find this work of use, and that there is therefore no need to share it with them. As much as it pains me to say this, I realize that this is a mindset I’m facing myself. I’m really having to push myself to realize that this isn’t true at all, and that it cannot be true. I need to decolonize my own work.

What is inspiring about Dr. Patterson’s project is that she uses Public History to avoid this pitfall. Using the concept of “exhibition as research” she has established a meaningful dialogue with the communities she has collected information from. Not only do the people she has interviewed have a voice in her work, but she has worked with them to create an exhibition of the results of her research – or perhaps more accurately, their research. The audience of the exhibition is,significantly, the community it is about. We (meaning historians, but mostly myself – I should really stop pretending to speak for others!) tend to think that most publics don’t see the value in history, that they find it boring, and don’t understand the immense value it has as a tool and as cultural capital. But I think what projects like Dr. Patterson’s show is that this idea is just another way of making ourselves (i.e. academics) seem important to ourselves and others. It is a way of ensuring that there will always be disempowered people to study, and to maintain a position of privilege from which to conduct our work.

Well, perhaps we can analyse things in a way that “lay” people can’t. But that doesn’t mean they must be excluded from the process of research and knowledge production. After all, it is their histories and their experiences that are being told. If they don’t have a right to it, then who does, really?

2 thoughts on “Decolonizing through Public History

  1. Very, very well put my dear! You have a gift for teasing through complex subjects and getting at their heart. I love being able to come along for the exciting ride that is your research (which is so fascinating!) Keep it up 🙂

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