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Silencing The Past by Michel-rolph Trouillot: How Power Shapes The Fabrication of History

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Love, hate, fear are universal emotions experienced in history, and are shaped by cultural and religious traditions, economics, politics, and violence. Oftentimes, emotions are undetectable such as memory and silence which are concealed and tucked away to be forgotten from historical records. As depicted by many authors such as Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Irene Levia, and other scholars; emotions are often hidden and silenced in historical context but can be remembered through personal narratives that are passed down through generations. Throughout history, narratives have been falsified and embellished to appear honorable, fearsome, and powerful. Silencing the Past by Michel-Rolph Trouillot discusses how some historical narratives are constructed while others are silenced, how power shapes the fabrication of history.

Trouillot, a distinguished Haitian anthropologist and historian that uses the Haitian Revolution to illustrate his understanding of how the past is remembered, constructed, and silenced. Henri Christophe, King Henri of Haiti, built a magnificent palace called Sans Souci which rapidly lost its connotation. Colonel Jean-Baptiste Sans Souci was a Bossale ex-slave involved in the Revolution who excelled in guerilla tactics but was betrayed and killed by Christophe. Christophe had the fabulous idea to build the palace near the location where the killing occurred and decided to name the palace after the enemy he defeated, Sans Souci. The link between the palace and the man, Sans Souci has been suppressed and long forgotten, silenced. History does not belong to its narrators, professional or amatuer, which concludes that history is not solely fixated on one narration but on numerous perspectives if given the chance to be heard. Historical facts are not created equally, the narratives lay between what happened and what was said to have happened. It relies on an extreme power that can control the way it is going to be told throughout time. Archives hold such power, locking away distorted narratives and will omit certain aspects of the story to control the difference between the chronicler, never missing a single detail and the narrator, that can withhold the truth and generate silences within their narratives. Not only has this included Sans Souci but also, the history of Columbus, the Mayflower, slavery, the Alamo, and the Holocaust.

Trouillot asserts that our knowledge about slavery only deals with slavery in America, that U. S. historiography, for reasons perhaps not too different from its Brazilian counterpart, produced its own silences on African-American slavery; there were blacks and whites in North America who argued over both the symbolic and analytical relevance of slavery for the present they were living. The significance of U. S. slavery involved not only professional historians but ethnic and religious leaders, political appointees, journalists, and various associations within civil society as well as independent citizens, not all of whom are activists. Stating that slavery, in such countries as Brazil are silenced, hoping to be forgotten. Although such a silence occurs, does not mean it is lost with its narrators. History does not belong to the narrator who retells a story whether they are professional or amateur; others will debate false truths against silent realities which yet are to be told. Therefore, stating that historians can retrieve a variation of sources to justify this claim; to open the doors of the historical archives that range in little to none perspectives. The limited variation of narrators is the reason why theories of history are very narrow minded and one-sided which distorts the historical narrative from being told.

Often, silence is a form of resistance that distorts the historical narrative by not claiming the unspoken truth. Although silence is not actively hidden, it is a part of the story that is just not talked about. Being silent distorts the narrative by limiting the amount of perspectives, it reduces the possibility of other truths that Western historiography is unwilling to claim. Western historiography is solely one-sided, containing falsified concepts of events such as the slavery, Columbus, the Alamo, the 4th of July, and other National holidays. The truth of these fairytales are silenced, hidden away trying to become forgotten. Silence evokes emotions by restricting individuals to not speak of a wicked past that is disturbing and haunting. For instance, Levin’s article, Silence, Memory and Migration discusses how a survivor of the Holocaust remains silent when speaking about her younger brother’s death. The survivor shifts the story, holding back details that would quickly mention that he died in the process of being captured by soldiers. It is clear to identify that her pain greatly affects her life, yet it happened so many years ago. Her silence has only brought misery and sorrow, unable to grief and mourn properly, she remains broken for holding on to a silent past. It is silent narrations like this one, that could potentially change other narratives told professionally or amateurally. As Trouillot states, each historical narrative renews a claim to truth, arguing that Western historiography is not to be trusted completely. Each narrative can claim a new truth, a new perspective that may alter the one already written in history textbooks.

History cannot be set in stone, narratives change with each narrator claiming their own truth. Silences enter the process of historical production at four crucial moments: the moment of fact creation, of fact assembly, of fact retrieval, and of retrospective significance. Stating that silence in the moment of creation results in the development of untrustworthy sources; it denies other interpretations of the story to be told, narratives that will most likely change the story altogether. To remain quiet while the archives are being written only leads to an assembly of biased narratives that only produce false victories and inaccurate stories in Western historiography. The silences of resistance against Western historiography includes topics such as San Souci, the Haitian Revolution, and the reinterpretation of the Alamo. The recreation of the narratives mentioned have caused Westerns to discredit and disapprove these new claims wanting to silence their voices by making petty remarks stating that the work is inadequate.

To begin, the Haitian Revolution is the least detailed narrative told by Westerns, stating false accusations that never occured or claiming to a false truth to appear superior. Historical narratives are premised on previous understandings, which are themselves premised on the distribution of archival power. In the case of Haitian historiography, as in the case of Most Third World countries, these previous understandings have been profoundly shaped by Western conventions and procedures, meaning that Western historiography holds these countries back by denying people of color a simple education of becoming literate. First, the writing and readings of Haitian historiography implies literacy and formal access to a Western primarily French language and culture, two prerequisites that already exclude the majority of Haitians from direct participation in its production. Which leads into Western historiography being able to select whom they wish to share their knowledge with. Western historiography is all about power, money, trade, and Europeans. Europeans who have set boundaries, who have proven to conceal their knowledge with entire world, and who have chosen to become an elite country that only invites scholars to access and enter their universities. Western historiography tends to silence negative outcomes by creating false narratives to gain popularity in mythicized celebrations. Narratives are necessarily emplotted in a way that life is not, meaning that narrators decide whether or not to voice a fabricated narrative that alters life’s history with or without any hard evidence to be proved as the truth. Fabricating a false narrative is a way to maintain power by having a strong historical past that represents fear and terror. To remain fearful amongst other countries or to be viewed as the strongest nation during time of war. For instance, Columbus was taught to be seen as a hero to the United States, founder of America. History has taught adolescents false narratives of what Columbus stumbled upon once arriving to America; he enslaved and mutilated the Native Americans, infected them with diseases they brought with them which killed a significant amount of the Native population.

Another false narrative adolescents are taught in school is how Thanksgiving came to be. It celebrates the gathering between the Pilgrims and the Native Americans, a union between the groups that is actually hard to prove. In addition to Europe having the first universities, they also have the power to control history; being able to hand pick their own superior narratives. Furthermore, by containing the educational learning concepts, Europe is able to control Western historiography and become the gatekeepers of knowledge, which produces the whispers behind closed doors; a hidden transcript of reality. The whispers behind closed doors contributes to the understanding of the emotions of history despite, the silence that is hidden from the historical record. The whispers behind closed doors pertain to the untold narratives that are only discussed in sheltered environments. Sandra Greene’s article, “Whispers and Silences: Explorations in African Oral” explores the hidden narratives of slavery and Christianity in Ghana. Christianity was first introduced into the Anlo area in the mid-19th century. Over time, it gained increasing numbers of followers, a gain that brought to traditional religious believers a steady assault on their beliefs and practices. It triggered missionaries who operated in the area, to condemn these practices and the colonial government by outlawing many of them. Opportunities for political authority and economic prosperity shifted away from the traditional religious orders and became increasingly associated with belief in Christianity and Western education; and numbers decreased. Greene states, scholars have documented both official histories and counternarratives as well as analyzing personal histories and even narratives definable as gossip; all in a remarkably successful effort to use locally produced texts to reconstruct the African past. Therefore, meaning that scholars are willingly to put in the work to hear counternarratives to gain knowledge of a hidden past of countries that often silence their people by using fear. Greene continues to assert how most traditional political leaders in southern Ghana, have enforced customary laws that prohibit the discussion of slave origins. Thus, resulting in the widespread of silence regarding the slave trade which lead to political repression or a self-censorship, a topic that is avoided. This dominant narrative of a non-exist slave past has been embraced and supported by the larger public, triggering silence among the people of Ghana.

The production of widespread silences about the slavery and the fear of mentioning the very word caused people to secure themselves, their families, and communities from the pain and the divisiveness that can follow in the wake of disclosure of the silenced slave trade that is supposed to be forgotten. Silence was imposed and embraced only because it is perceived to be the only way to avoid political or social ostracism what emerges is a vibrant culture of whispering. The silence of the slave trade was seen as a positive motion to suppress Ghana’s past of slavery in order for their people to not feel the pain and sufferings their ancestors faced during the seventeenth century. Silence that accompanies an official discourse about the past is the public face of a set of “hidden transcripts, ” alternative narratives that refuse to be forgotten. Narratives that are condemned to be tossed aside to either remove an ugly truth or to remain powerful and superior. The power of fear perpetuates cultural ignorance and cultural supremacy in distinct landscapes of Europe and the Americans. The concept of fear ascended during the French Revolution, as it birthed terror and the movement where humanity plunged into a tyranny. The conception of terror during the French Revolution was seen as an exceptional notion when the reality of the terror was evil, terror served as an extreme power, to deceive and subjugate men. It stripped individuals from their most basic legal protection which lead to mass killings to spread the idea of terror. The idea of terror forced individuals to become culturally ignorant about the beliefs and principles that occurred during this time. This caused philosophers to question the church and state, resulting in the European Enlightenment; an intellectual sought to challenge the laws governing the natural and human worlds; to enlighten others. Enlightenment thinkers such as Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, claimed that the goal of the Enlightenment was to take away fear from individuals and to become the ruler of it. Many depicted terror as an emotion; an extreme form of fear; the ability to inspire the emotion of fear in others. The cultural ignorance was sculpted during the reign of terror, it tyrannized and petrified their subjects to endure a life lived in fear.

Overall, universal emotions are experienced in history and are shaped by cultural and religious traditions. One emotion throughout history that has been seen to be used repeatedly is silence and is often undetectable. Silence conceals forgotten narratives from being placed into historical records as these individuals are holding onto the fear instilled many years ago. Although, scholars have the ability to further research these hidden transcripts. As emotions are often hidden and silenced in historical context. Historical narratives produced by Europeans have been falsified and embellished to appear honorable, fearsome, and powerful.

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Silencing the Past by Michel-Rolph Trouillot: How Power Shapes the Fabrication of History. (2020, July 14). GradesFixer. Retrieved May 23, 2022, from
“Silencing the Past by Michel-Rolph Trouillot: How Power Shapes the Fabrication of History.” GradesFixer, 14 Jul. 2020,
Silencing the Past by Michel-Rolph Trouillot: How Power Shapes the Fabrication of History. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 23 May 2022].
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