NU, Emory professors discuss non-traditional narratives of history

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Allie Goulding/Daily Senior Staffer

Emory Prof. Carol Anderson and NU Profs. Natasha Trethewey and Leslie Harris speak at a Monday event in Harris Hall. The talk focused on the importance of finding truths not normally discussed in traditional history narratives.

Elizabeth Cameron, Reporter

Professors from Northwestern and Emory University discussed Monday their efforts to find non-traditional narratives of history through scholarship and poetry.

Emory African American studies Prof. Carol Anderson spoke with NU English Prof. Natasha Trethewey and African American studies and history Prof. Leslie Harris about poetry, history and truth. The talk, held in Harris Hall in front of about 100 people, was a keynote event of the 2017-18 TRUTH Dialogues — a year-long series that tackles politics from a humanistic perspective.

Anderson spoke about the difficulties of the archival nature of history as an academic field, and what to do when an aspect of research is not documented in the usual way.

“We know that there are these holes,” she said. “We know that one of the problems of history as a discipline being so archivally driven is that it means that if there is not an archive with you in it, then you cease to exist.”

To find the stories of minorities who have been omitted from the archives, Leslie said she looks to news sources, video footage, movies and diaries. She added that these are a few places to find historically viable and legitimate sources to fill in the gaps.

Trethewey, who won a Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for her work on the black experience in the Civil War, said it is important to use personal experience and truth to give life to characters. Trethewey said she humanized the black experience during the Civil War and made it into a collection of poems to reach a different audience than more traditional historical scholarship.

“Poetry is a way that I think that people can listen because of the intimacy of the voice,” she said. “And if it can do the work of history too that’s when I feel happiest.”

Trethewey said she uses multiple footnotes in her poetry to assure the reader that the historical context is researched and true. This creates not only an empathetic and historically accurate work of art, but also a detailed analysis of historical sources, she said.

Anderson said the truth is being questioned more often in the current political climate. She added that despite hostile responses to her work, she is proud of her efforts to break down traditional narratives. She said even offensive responses might mean that people are questioning themselves and their assumptions about history.

Weinberg freshman Cameron Cook told The Daily she recognized the importance of learning from history. To do so, Cook said she takes history classes and attends events like this one.

“The whole thing about if we don’t study history we are doomed to repeat … is happening in real life,” she said. “Things we thought we had gotten rid of are still there. These things are still happening and unless we are going to do things about them it’s just going to keep happening.”

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