Friday, December 14, 2007

respecting your sources

Yesterday I attended a luncheon with Karen Kupperman, one of the "great" contemporary historians of early America and the Atlantic world. She spoke about her work, about her visions for a field that looks beyond a "national" lens in studying the 17th century, and about how she reads primary sources. She was very intent on this last point. Historians, she emphasized, must respect the sources they are reading; they must take them seriously and not brush them off for being, from our perspective at least, ridiculous, irrelevant or inane.

This is a very real danger for historians of the 17th century, because a lot of people wrote a lot of (pardon me) horrible, racist, and unforgivable shit. The English were in the process of justifying their booming slave trade with religious narrow-mindedness and then biological racism; chattel slavery was widespread; people all over the world were being sold, tortured, forced into servitude, murdered. And these practices...were philosophically supported with faulty but powerful arguments. So yes, sometimes it difficult to read these texts without having a visceral reaction of repulsion. But apparently (and this is certainly an arguable point), it's important to "respect" these authors.

I don't mean to take Kupperman's point too far; I actually agree with her. She doesn't mean "respect" in terms of actually having respect for the authors, but rather "respect" in terms of thinking of the authors as human beings who are writing for a specific purpose. We shouldn't just read what they're writing; the text needs to be taken in more fully, more honestly, for the complex conjunction of opinions, prejudices, assumptions, desires, perceptions and intentions that it is. It is a more honest way of doing history.

It really is. And right now I am seeing this method of "complex respect" in comparison to what I am going to call an "argument-based" lens of research. I fear this is what I am doing now: taking ones' own argument and superimposing it onto the past, adjusting it when the sources call for an adjustment, but primarily looking for support.

I fear I'm doing this because of the example Kupperman gave for her idea of "complex respect" of ones sources. She has been studying Richard Ligon's "True and Exact History of Barbados," published in 1657. The "True and Exact History" is one of the classic texts of 17th century travel writing. It is also crucial for anyone studying Barbadian history, like myself.

Kupperman described a scene in the text where Ligon begins to play an instrument and is soon joined by a few black slaves, who take interest in the instrument. The next day, the slaves bring their own instrument and play it. Ligon interprets this as the slaves' attempt to imitate his own instrument. But anyone acquainted with West African musical traditions would recognize the slaves' instruments as African instruments recreated in the new world. This added knowledge gives the scene new depth and tells us more about both enslaved Africans than Ligon consciously could.

So point is, this is a fascinating passage. And I...didn't even read it. Because while Ligon's text is very important, it is only tangential to my purpose, which is to investigate Quaker attempts to convert slaves to Quakerism. So there was no way I was going to do a close reading of all 180 pages. Instead, I did a word search, looking for "christian" and "religion", and miss this passage completely.

Did I not "respect" Ligon's text? The truth is that you can't respect everything you're studying; not, at least, as well as you might like. There is too much to pay attention to, you have to let some things slide if you want to make any continuous argument at all... but I suppose Kuppermans' talk was an appreciated reminder. That once i'm finished making my "argument" about Quakers and slave conversion, I can go back to Ligon, and to all of the texts I've used tangentially, and be able to investigate them on new, fresh terms. It's exciting, slightly exhausting, and rather exhilerating to know that so little says so much...

No comments:

Post a Comment