Written History isn’t Heard.

Recording history has become more of an obligation than an interest in preserving the origin of how we came to be. We have relied on written historical records to file and put away in libraries no one goes to anymore. We have learned that even written records can omit the brutal truth of our ancestors, to be taught at a young age to praise Christopher Columbus for his exploration; but never share the grotesqueness of how he had conquered the New World, mercilessly slaughtering the natives both by sword and a slow death of disease. We skim over these words in textbooks and articles just as adjectives and pronouns, not as extensions of ourselves who cried, bled, and died in the effort to live.

I remember being in middle school and sitting in an assembly. As a school we watched “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas”. To us it was a break from classes to watch a movie, nap, talk with friends, and just zone out until dismissal. It wasn’t until a Holocaust survivor walked out when we finally understood; what is on screen, isn’t just on screen. The elderly woman had pulled up her sleeve as if to confirm their identity by the number in black ink; a permanent reminder of their dehumanization. History was in front of me. Living. Breathing. Maybe even desperate to tell what really happened rather than the utopia that is broadcasted worldwide, twisted into forms of entertainment. History was always being watched in cinema and read in school but was never truly seen.

Through my schooling I realized just how much we had to read and it wasn’t until college that we were given other sources of historical context. The hat is just what I had thought was missing especially from my history classes; context and the human condition. There is a definitive juxtaposition between written narratives and audio recordings. Reading through The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa, The African, Written By Himself we are given direct insight from his experiences as a slave but the pain and hardships are reduced to the dependence of descriptive vocabulary and grammatical limitations with perfect strokes of printed ink. To only rely on the voice in our head to visualize a story becomes just that; a story without the reality of emotion and sensibility. Equiano recalls his horrid experiences on the slave ships:

This produced copious perspirations, so that the air soon became unfit for respiration, from a variety of loathsome smells, and brought on a sickness among the slaves, of which many died, thus falling victims to the improvident avarice, as I may call it, of their purchasers. This wretched situation was again aggravated by the galling of the chains, now become insupportable; and the filth of the necessary tubs, into which the children often fell, and were almost suffocated. The shrieks of the women, and the groans of the dying, rendered the whole a scene of horror almost inconceivable.

Equiano, Chapter 2
Symington, Christy; OLAUDAH EQUIANO – African, Slave, Author, Abolitionist; Parliamentary Art Collection; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/olaudah-equiano-african-slave-author-abolitionist-276358

The argument is not that history shouldn’t be written, but that the written form excludes connection and initial reactions. As he said himself, witnessing scenes of horror are inconceivable in and of themselves, let alone trying to describe the violent acts of rape and torture. Digital rhetoric is a way of informing, persuading, and inspiring action in an audience through digital media that is composed and distributed via multimedia platforms. Digital rhetoric is a tool by which different cultures can continue to facilitate their longstanding cultural traditions. Classical rhetoric was focused on legal, political and ceremonial speeches, and designated three modes of expression: logos (logical argument), pathos (emotional appeals), and ethos (establishing the authority of the speaker). Just as technology and its availability have changed over time, digital rhetoric has shifted from being only concerned with persuasion to also being concerned with self expression and collaboration with the purpose of building communities of people with shared interest.One way of studying digital rhetoric is to trace the ways that the affordances and constraints of technology “support and enable the transformation of the old rhetoric of persuasion into a new digital rhetoric that encourages self-expression, participation, and creative collaboration”. Integrating history outside of the written means, provokes a degree of response that could evoke action and conversation. There is no denying the difference in reaction between reading the following excerpt of Equiano’s exposure to brutality and the 1949 audio interview with Fountain Hughes, an American former slave freed in 1865 after the American Civil War.

I have even known them gratify their brutal passion with females not ten years old; and these abominations some of them practised to such scandalous excess, that one of our captains discharged the mate and others on that account. And yet in Montserrat I have seen a negro man staked to the ground, and cut most shockingly, and then his ears cut off bit by bit, because he had been connected with a white woman who was a common prostitute: as if it were no crime in the whites to rob an innocent African girl of her virtue; but most heinous in a black man only to gratify a passion of nature, where the temptation was offered by one of a different colour, though the most abandoned woman of her species. Another negro man was half hanged, and then burnt, for attempting to poison a cruel overseer. Thus by repeated cruelties are the wretched first urged to despair, and then murdered, because they still retain so much of human nature about them as to wish to put an end to their misery, and retaliate on their tyrants! 

Equiano, Chapter 5

Before the second example, it is important to acknowledge rhetoric intersectionality, something I like to define as the overlap between logos, pathos, and ethos, and how written history tends to neglect the emotional connection to an audience. As we read the paragraph we can skim along the words and still get the idea of the words beings used, but not in the literal context of wincing or bowing at the rising and falling of articulation in someone’s voice, long forgotten. I believe we learn more through negatives than we do positives, sadness instead of happiness, failures instead of achievements. Lamentation in our history is neglected when written, ignoring the screams for help or pain, the cracking voice of a freed slave now in their hundreds saying he can no longer sing for us. The voice of Fountain Hughes breaks the hearts of listeners persuading the audience to feel his own.

We have come to an age where technology is overpowering our daily lives and sometimes we have to utilize this progression in the name of preserving and exposing history in its purest truest form. History has to do with us whether we are ignorant or aware. We sit in classrooms reading of war and pillaging as if it couldn’t have been our families. History is the study of the past in human affairs so why does it feel so far from the human condition?

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