The Dead Them and the Dying Us

My career as an historian began when I was seven. An elementary school teacher went around the room asking us what we wanted to be when we grew up. My peers, I was startled to learn, wanted to be athletes and detectives, rock stars and millionaires. These were clearly good options, and I was disappointed not to have thought of them first. Nevertheless I meekly admitted that I wanted to be an Egyptologist, or perhaps a medievalist, or, (succumbing to the need to appear a little more masculine) a wreck diver.

From an early age, there was something about the past that tugged at me. Thinking on the dead was like laying in the grass and staring at the stars. In pondering on all the people who had gone before, I felt humbled by, and yet connected to, the great and ever unfolding drama of human be-ing. These dead, I decided, had done one important thing I hadn’t: they’d died. And so strangely they could teach me how to live—tell me what mistakes not to make, what promises to live up to and what prejudices to live down. Their very pastness reminded me that the world they built was bequeathed to us and we hold it in trust. Soon enough we will be gone too, and we must do all we can to pass on a better world to those who go on without us.

I never feel myself so much an historian as when I am entombed with my dead in some archival catacombs, convinced I am searching for their humanity, knowing I am searching for my own.

History, then, is my religion; the archive is my church and research is my sacrament (and my penance). I never feel myself so much an historian as when I am entombed with my dead in some archival catacombs, convinced I am searching for their humanity, knowing I am searching for my own.

But over the years I have become increasingly frustrated by how difficult it is to recover the underprivileged dead from such tombs. In many cases, the archive can seem to have exactly nothing to say about billions of people. One day last year, I was walking in the Edgefield Village Cemetery, and I caught sight of an enormous altar-tomb that had been carved in 1853 for a 9-month old. In that way that epiphanies do, it suddenly seemed very strange to me that on an ever-shrinking planet, this one white baby gets 30 square feet of Earth forever; she has her own GPS coordinates forever; you will always be able to find her. Meanwhile an old myth has it that one Georgia planter was so cheap he buried his slaves upright to save space. Can we confirm that? No, because those folks never got a marker. At their worst and in the wrong hands traditional archives have this same effect. Built to house the records of elite white families, they can seem like monuments to a dead few that distract us from the dead many.

The other problem is that when the archive does bring out its least privileged dead it tends to serve them up brutalized and violated: slaves on a ship’s ledger, for instance, who get named and then raped and fed to sharks, leaving me to struggle to name them without raping them or feeding them to sharks, which is impossible because that is all that I know of them. And after months in such materials I can begin to feel a creeping resentment toward an archive that only remembers this about them because I don’t want them to be synonymous with only this and I don’t want to reproduce only this and in weak moments I can feel like screaming that I actually hate the archive and would gladly shutter it forever because it is making me feel that I am only reproducing the damage, and it is making me feel that history is mostly bad news—a vast tapestry of taking and being taken—and it is making me wonder if maybe history is a disease that we could quarantine in the archive so that it would stop infecting the present, and then we could all go hug our kids and throw sticks to our dogs and water our gardens.

But always I would return to the archive—because I don’t know myself without it—because I am an addict—because the archive creates an itch that only it can scratch, and because the quarantine won’t work; the present is already infected; history happened whether it was recorded in an archive or not and is everywhere written in the structures of the world as it comes down to us. Indeed, as a product of the past, the present is the ultimate archive, and is inescapable, and if we would understand the forces that made and remake it, we must make do with the records we have.

CSI:D is my partial answer to this conundrum. If we must make do with the records we have, we don’t have to make do with the archives we have. We can build our own archives—alternative archives like CSI:D—an archive of the unfortunate, the murdered, and the suicidal. The point is not to expose for the sake of exposure. We do not reproduce crimes; we work to ‘solve’ them by owning them and answering for them. In this, we cannot be self-righteous. As historians, we keep the dead’s judgments against the living, and the living’s judgments against the dead. We are mere clerks in the reckoning, the process that comes between truth and reconciliation.

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    University of Georgia
    Athens, GA 30602-1602
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eHistory was founded at the University of Georgia in 2011 by historians Claudio Saunt and Stephen Berry

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