Guest Post by Rhiannon Callahan, PhD Student ’25 (Research Assistant)

“Truthiness” and collective memory

When I began my MA coursework in 2018, I experienced one of those moments where something just clicked. To paraphrase a Jedi with whom I share a nickname (I had it first!): something inside me had always been there, but now, it was awake. And I was afraid. This awakening came during my historical methods class, when my professor described, as he saw it, the “three versions of history.” The first of these, he told us, is what actually happened. The second: what people reported as having happened. And the third, is what “we” believe as having happened. The notion that while historians aim to faithfully capture the actuality of an event, yet can never truly approach 100% certainty, shook me to my core about the nature of objectivity. Is history really just about, as Stephen Colbert would say, “truthiness”? There is a lot to unpack, but stay with me here: this is where the fun begins!

Once my initial shock wore off, the realization that what actually happened can only be arrived at with degrees of certainty through what people reported (we might think of this as evidence in the historical record), has had a profound impact on my understanding of what exactly historians do. It is that final category, what we believe, that really struck me as incredibly important, for it is what we as a society (scalable through the levels of community, nation, and global) tell ourselves about our past. This belief about our past – which may be helpful to think of as collective memory – is intricately bound with what was reported or preserved in the historical record, because it is often shaped by conflicting or contradictory evidence. And it is further complicated by relations of power: who is meant by we and our in these contexts? 

How exactly does one reduce a person’s entire life to a mere 1500 words?

Now I find myself at Northeastern University, a first year PhD student privileged to work as a research assistant under the direction of Professor Angel Nieves, where I am trying my best to contribute to the invaluable work on Apartheid Heritages. In writing annotations for this project, the work is deceptively straightforward: compile a descriptive and argumentative entry for a digital database – a simple essay, really. Ideally, this should encapsulate the person, organization, or key concept that forms an integral part of the project. I say “deceptively” because the heavy lifting comes into play through the subtext of the assignment. How exactly does one reduce a person’s entire life to a mere 1500 words? Or conversely, how do you flush out significance in cases where little has been recorded in the primary sources or secondary literature? What about a concept as broad and politically charged as “student” in the context of apartheid South Africa? Perhaps most importantly: who the heck am I to decide what is significant, to attribute worth to this bit of information from the archive or secondary literature? These questions may seem either profound or mundane, depending on your point of view. They are central to what historians – aspiring and veteran practitioners alike – do. They are in essence, about the truths we cling to and how those shape collective memory and memorialization.

A Day in the Life: Comparing Sam Nzima’s Testimonies Before the Cillie Commission and Truth and Reconciliation Commission

During my undergraduate studies, I was fortunate enough to take an excellent survey of South African history that has proven quite valuable in terms of grounding my analysis in an approach that is attentive to the patterns of the longue durée. However, a project such as Apartheid Heritages is in many ways the antithesis of a survey, with its attention to role of space and place in shaping how people both interact with their environment and find avenues of liberation in unlikely ways. This is not to say that my research and the overall project are not informed by long-term, systemic patterns, but simply that my previous experience with the “bird’s eye view” of South African history is not mutually intelligible with the project at hand. What I’m trying to say is that even with significant relevant experience, there has been a lot of on-the-job learning.

On-the-job learning

If I can impart a few wisdom nuggets on the reader, I do so humbly with the hopes that these suggestions have value in and outside of the academy, and their utility can be applied to a variety of projects that require research and critical thinking:

Organization

Develop an organization system early in your process – and stick to it! Adopting a cohesive and navigable system earlier in my own process would have saved countless hours doubling back to find a specific reference to something I found important in my notes. I have not always been a fan of taking notes electronically: for digital sources it is perfectly fine and quite seamless using a split screen window. This can be incredibly effective for making use of the “search” function to quickly find what you are looking for. However, for printed material I find having my laptop open to be rather distracting and thus tend to use a combination of sticky notes and a notebook. 

Footnotes

Mine footnotes in any book in your possession (or eBook). This is useful not just for finding valuable primary sources – many of which have been digitized, and who knows, you just may find something that another researcher passed over, or simply weighed against its inclusion in their narrative. But this is also to see which authors in the secondary literature are in conversation with one another. While many scholars will clearly flag this in their literature review/historiography section of their introductions, others engage and reference more subtly.

Embrace the “doodads”

Some of my other responsibilities have also been to perform departmental service in order to ensure that a program that prides itself on the embrace of digital humanities is in fact putting its best foot forward when it comes to having a navigable and engaging digital presence with its department website. As someone with a personal history of calling pieces of tech “doodads” or berating them when they do not cooperate – and other behaviors stereotypical of someone twice her age – a good deal, if not all of this work has taken me out of my comfort zone. That is a good thing.

Clear your mind

Finally, indulge in a healthy bit of escapism. Focus. Clear your mind. Go to a galaxy, far, far away (that’s quite literal for me but whatever it is for you that allows you to switch off your brain and wind down at night). History is not for the faint of heart. It is filled with people who wield power in unjust ways, who use their privilege in an exploitative fashion. It can be “triggering” to study, and so much of the archive is filled with the voices of oppression while accounts of marginalized peoples are few and far between. Be careful not to amplify the oppressors’ voices, these difficult histories still warrant study in order to dismantle white supremacy and to elevate voices of liberation in order to contextualize and understand the struggles that gave people’s lives meaning and shaped the modern world. 

History is needed now

We live in an era where it is becoming clear increasingly clear that silence is complacency – a tacit endorsement of the status quo, which was not working for so many before we spent the last year (or has it been one really long month?) in a pandemic-induced pocket universe. With the catastrophic toll from four years of reactionary political leadership, the unprecedented loss brought on by the pandemic, and the January 6 Insurrection – informed by their (misguided) belief in what had happened – shows that  it is okay to not be okay right now! Find a constructive avenue to channel that discontent, one that aims to build through coalitions (even and especially if you don’t agree on everything) rather than tear down those who would be your allies and fellow travelers. It also goes to show that researching, writing, and teaching good history, activist history, is necessary now more than ever, and I am fortunate to be able to contribute to that in some small way. For without good history, democracy dies – with thunderous applause.

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