<p>‘History is written by the winners,’ wrote George Orwell. I would rephrase, rather, that history is written by the privileged – those who have the power to decide the ‘truth’. Often, both the ‘winners’ and the ‘losers’ are replaced by carefully cultivated narratives steeped in political agendas and the struggles they fought for are lost in the muddy waters of elitism.</p>
‘History is written by the winners,’ wrote George Orwell. I would rephrase, rather, that history is written by the privileged – those who have the power to decide the ‘truth’. Often, both the ‘winners’ and the ‘losers’ are replaced by carefully cultivated narratives steeped in political agendas and the struggles they fought for are lost in the muddy waters of elitism.
Since the Cold War, most historians have moved away from such polarised phrasing like good versus evil; the heroic West against the villainous Communists. Post-war culture in the West has been built around globalised capitalism and depends on the debasement of alternate political structures. Sections of modern academia have tried to strip away the layers of propaganda and mythical benevolence – to shake our unshakeable truths – so that we may see the world through clearer eyes. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. Bias is inherent in any historical account and they can be as much a product of the present as of historical fact, but there is a deep societal need to revise the way we have written our past so far.
We blatantly rewrite parts of our history so that we can forget the atrocities by which our nation was conceived. On Australia Day, we wave our flags and celebrate our national pride on the day that marks the commencement of Indigenous genocide. ‘Don’t let people make you feel guilty for celebrating the country you live in!’ writes an acquaintance of mine on Facebook, as he goes on to extol Australia’s virtues and the opportunities it provides for us.
But, you see, as a white Australian – particularly as a non-Indigenous Australian – my privileged life here in this country is completely built upon the foundations of white supremacy. It’s not one single day that we ignore Indigenous history and their culture. We deny it every day: in our judicial system, in our government, and in our media. Australia provides opportunities, yes, but for a few. And we ensure that. We replace ‘invading’ with ‘colonising’, we write that Captain Cook ‘discovered’ Australia and we try to take away what is left of Indigenous land. So where is our guilt?
We don’t like feeling guilty for the life we lead. We like to look back on the people and policies who set the foundations for our luxuries with fondness. We don’t want to think critically, because it means admitting we live in a society based upon oppression. To upset or challenge this could mean relinquishing the privileges we believe we are entitled to. So we trivialise it and we build new narratives to suit the maintenance of our social hegemony.
The 2016 musical, Hamilton, for all its progressiveness, turns the four slave-owning Founding Fathers into a literal song and dance. Thanksgiving largely ignores the slaughter of Native Americans, much like our own Australia Day. Further still, the film Stonewall, which centres on the LGBT+ rights movement in the United States, replaces the original leaders, transgender women of colour such as Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, with consumable cis-gendered white men. Our culture is built upon the bones of the oppressed.
A lecturer once commented on an essay of mine that I had over-criticised the ‘revolutionary’ French National Assembly (FNA); that I had downplayed their role in the abolition of slavery and the foundations of women’s rights. Perhaps this is because we are indoctrinated with hero-worship of those who have defined Western history from a young age. Perhaps it is like learning that our parents are people with faults and flaws. Yet if we ever want to live in an equal society without minority and racial oppression, it is critical to recognise the diversity in our history. To correct what has been recorded by imperialists and the supremacist elite.
Radical is not a dirty word.
Winston Churchill supposedly once observed that ‘if a person is not a liberal when he is twenty, he has no heart; if he is not a conservative when he is forty, he has no head’. But to many people, being ‘radical’ is not a choice, an opinion or a phase. It is inherent to their identity. By virtue of being a social minority, your very existence is political. For me, the persistent protests and popular insurrections staged by the Haitian slaves in the French colony of Saint-Domingue were far more revolutionary than the forced hand of their bourgeois owners, the powerful white men of the FNA for the FNA, the Haitian’s freedom was merely a bargaining chip reluctantly pooled in return for allegiance against an advancing invasion.
As a girl who was constantly told she was too loud, too bossy, too outspoken, the women who fought for their right to vote are so much more radical than the men who silenced them when they rocked the boat a little too far. History is interpretive, but it’s crucial to question the narrative we were fed from tainted palms.
Our history is brighter and more complex than the narrative of Western innovation and revolution we have been given
As a lesbian, I am in debt to the actions of trans women of colour and to the women who threw bricks and stones and fought for me to live openly and happily. I will not erase them for ease of simplicity and compliance. I owe them; the LGBT+ community owes them.
People who have never suffered from institutional oppression and violence seem to believe we should be grateful for the small victories which are afforded to us. When juxtaposed against their absence, the achievement of rights is perceived as a gift. Often, people forget they are rights rather than privileges. Haitians, and women, do not need to look back on the French Revolution and thank the National Assembly for ‘allowing’ them to prise their freedom from the FNA’s cold, dead, white hands.
We need to recognise the real heroes of our history and not overstate the radicalness of men who had a different definition of humankind. Visibility is pivotal in moving forward. Perhaps when we learn that this world was built from privilege, we may see how sections of humanity have rebuilt their lives and their cultures from the ashes colonisers left behind. Our history is brighter and more complex than the narrative of Western innovation and revolution we have been given. Let’s scrub at the veneers of bigotry which have coloured historical accounts white for centuries. If we ever want to truly move on from the horrors of our past, we can start by acknowledging the oppressed individuals who struggled against the odds to change it.