Often when we talk about atrocities we perceive to be ‘historical,’ we are presented with one of two views about them. The first is the idea that this all happened a long time ago. So we should forget and move on. The other, put simply is… it happened. This horrifying, unimaginable terror actually, actually happened. It was conceived in human hearts and minds and was carried out by human hands, sometimes over a long period of time, but it happened. It. Happened.
The problem with focusing on how long ago the act occured makes us rush over the fact of its happening. It happened a long time ago. We rush over the first part of that sentence in our haste to get to the second part of it. To say something happened a long time ago, we do have to mention the fact that it happened. So we should dwell longer on that happening. As we try to understand humanity. As we visit the past and the things which humanity has visited upon itself. These happened:
- The Middle Passage: It is estimated that 2 million Africans died in the Middle Passage – either from the conditions of the passage or being thrown overboard to lighten the load.
- Slavery: Of which the Atlantic slave trade was most notorious. Between 1525 and 1866 it is estimated that 12-20 million Africans were transported to America to be used as livestock.
- Colonialism: Most of Africa and Asia were occupied and dominated, the inhabitants subjugated and resources exploitated.
- Herero Genocide: Between 1904 and 1907, Germany killed about 100 000 people in what is present-day Namibia.
- Leopold in Congo: King Leopold II of Belgium killed over 10 million people in the Congo.
These are just some of the things that happened long ago. Things we are supposed to get over. But they happened. So, because I am a postcolonial theorist, I am often confronted by people who say, we should move on, stop the blame game, or that’s all over and done with now… and a host of variations on that theme. Basically, all these things happened a long time ago and we should let go already. Stop banging on about it. The past is done and dusted. Dead and buried. Has no impact on the now. Even though some of those who shouted at Ruby Bridges still live. Even though my grandfathers’ lives and thus mine, were shaped by the colonial encouter. Even though Herero human body parts are still trapped in the US Museum. Even though Leopold’s statue stares imperiously at all who pass it in Brussels. It happened a long time ago. It is history. Done. Dusted. However:
“The great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do.” James Baldwin
James Baldwin says…. yes, it was a long time ago. But it happened. So this history is still with us. If it happened, humanity bears witness to this. Humanity continues to bear witness that this happened.
So I understand. I understand that it is uncomfortable to remember these things that happened. Remembering is hard, when it is a history so horrifying that even just remembering it is seen as dangerous. Something to be avoided. Because if the history of the world is a history of atrocity, if these things happened in human lives, wrought by human hands, if this, this is who we are… is it not better to forget? What hope do we have if we remember who we were and know who we are?
But memory is also political. Memory drives the future. Our memories of the past inform our decisions in the present; they shape the future. But they ask us to forget this history. To lose our memories of what happened. So time returns. It happened. Can happen again. Is happening. In asking us to forget, we are being asked to get over what is not actually over. What we are unconsciouly controlled by. Memories. Histories. We walk side by side with history’s ghosts. They surprise us in a turn of phrase, in the use of words, an attitude that is artefact – a leftover present from history’s past still speaking history’s memories. Speaking what it has seen like outspoken witness trees. Witness trees stand, watching over today, having witnessed what we did to each other yesterday. A tree that stands in one place, over hundreds of years, bearing witness to human atrocity that happened so long ago, and yet, the tree lives. From generation to generation. Bearing witness to history’s happenings. So long ago, but it is still here. And if time was not strong enough to obliterate the witness tree, how on earth could time be strong enough to obliterate the atrocity? So long ago… it happened, and the trees bear witness. The earth bears witness that it happened.
So I do not want to blame anyone. We are who we are. But we cannot move on from our shadows. They are what they are. But if we want to step out of the darkness of our history, we have to be able to look history in the face and say:
We bear witness.