Questioning the Authority of History
By Johana Bhuiyan ’13
Sara Castro-Klaren walked into a slowly crowding room carrying a pile of books, each thicker than the next. “I just wanted to start off by showing you a couple of books that I really like,” she began her lecture.
One of these cherished books, each with its fair share of post-its protruding from the pages, was 1491, by Charles C. Mann.
“Not 1492, but 1491,” she said proudly. “Charles C. Mann’s next book is 1493; he doesn’t mention the year we all know about.”
This was precisely her point. Sara Castro-Klaren has an extensive background in Latin American history, having taught at institutions such as Georgetown, Stanford and Dartmouth; writing and publishing pieces such as El Mundo Mágico de J.M. Arguedas and Understanding Mario Vargas Llosa; and serving as chief of the Hispanic division at the Library of Congress.
She is now a professor at Johns Hopkins University, where she created and founded the Latin American Studies program. She spoke at Lehigh University in February.
From her hankering for history, however, came petulance for questioning the history that modern society has come to accept as “fixed” facts with little to no effect on the future.
“At one time or another the past became obsolete,” Castro-Klaren said. “The past was the past, so when did we decide what modernity was? Historians like to arrange stuff and make labels, but when did we decide that the medieval age was medieval? They didn’t call themselves that.”
It is this labeling, Castro-Klaren insisted, that has fogged the retrospective lens many “post-modern” historians look through.
“We need to move a little bit—not stay so fixed by our convictions,” she said. “Naming portrays something in such a way that it can be misrepresented.”
Castro-Klaren raised the issue of authority and validity of recorded facts. “You have to be a person of power to deploy names,” she said. “You have to have authority for them to stick.”
It was then she returned to the idea behind the book 1491.
“Christopher Columbus was looking for the Indies, sailed to a land with unknown people and decided that he found the Indies,” she said. “Columbus was wrong.”
Castro-Klaren emphasized the effect that making sense of newly discovered information within the context of what one does know has on the retelling of history.
“This is a part of the discourse of knowing and not knowing,” she said. “Columbus was just so desperate to get it right; Vespucci tried to sanctify the cartography. He wrote ‘I have found paradise.’ Who’s going to disagree with that?”
Thus history becomes a subjective matter left up to those with the authority to decide what does and does not get passed on through time, Castro-Klaren insisted. It is time to make room for new knowledge within history, she said.
February 21, 2013