Posted by: Morgan Hubbard | June 30, 2010

Do Documents Lie?

Ta-Nehisi Coates over at The Atlantic wrote yesterday (in conjunction with an anonymous historian) about the challenges of using evidence in writing history. Which evidence to use, and how to use it, is really the most important question a historian will address when he sits down to write a historical account. And let’s be clear: “writing history” is and should be a weighty thing. What I’m saying when I write history is, “This is what happened. It did not happen any other way, as far as the evidence goes.” This is a philosophically brave (some might say brash) thing to say. It asserts that I, the historian, have discovered something akin to truth. Writing history isn’t something to be taken lightly.

I’ve spent some time reading and talking about oral history with students and faculty here at UMass Amherst. A few historians in our community have essentially made oral history their life’s work. Others are skeptical about the real merits of oral histories. “Oral historians are basically just folklorists,” they say. “Oral histories are unreliable.”

Well, yes and no. Oral histories might often be unreliable, because people misremember, or lie to themselves, or unconsciously tamper with their memories to make them fit a powerful narrative. But what I’ve told my students at the beginning of the past two semesters is that documents can lie as easily as people, when “to lie” just means “to obscure reality.” Look, for instance, at the body count figures that became the de facto measurement of the America’s success in Vietnam in the 1960s. If we accept those documents at face value, we concede that they’re a good, valid way to understand America’s slow march through the murk of that conflict. But if we accept them at face value, we ignore crucial questions. Who decided body bags were the best way to measure progress? What other questions aren’t being asked?

There’s a lot more to write about oral history, but that’s for later.



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