Saturday, September 10, 2011

Collective History & Racial Prejudice

I have been making my way through Clifford Conner's A People's History of Science today, and presumably tomorrow.  The basic premise is very similar to Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States, that is to say, a history from the bottom up as opposed to the top down.  In the context of science, a top down history views scientific progress primarily through the lens of the big names, a few selected geniuses who devised or came about astounding ideas to push forward our collective understanding of the natural, physical world.  Thus, it would focus on the names, lives, work, and thought of Aristotle, Newton, Galileo, Darwin, Einstein, Planck, and so on.  This history focuses on what the contributions from so-called "commoners" would have been, as such contributions would have had to be made in order for these geniuses to make the "leaps" they seem to do.

One of the general points I gather so far when reading is how, like with all history, we tend to focus our concentration on a singular individuals or group of elites.  From a textbook point of view, in terms of condensing history into space, and making it so the topics and information is not overwhelming to learners, it makes sense.  When one studies any particular topic in history more specifically and in depth, one quickly discovers how much more complicated certain narratives really are, and how the "heroes" of our history from our standard textbook versions are sometimes not deserving of such hero worship.  In reality, progress, be it in terms of political civilization or scientific thought, while may be pushed forward significantly by certain individuals, is still the result of collective and communal action.  Very rarely do certain historical "leaps" happen in a vacuum; more likely is that we simply do not have information on the masses that contribute as they do not contribute in any fashion to the writing of the history.

In addition, sometimes we do not have that information as a certain time's prejudices, be it racial, economic, or gender based, do not allow the writers of history to credit certain individuals or people.  Conner specifically makes this point in his book on the insistence of people to attribute much of the founding of certain aspects of "western" civilization to the Greeks, and discredit any type of influence from the great empires of Egypt.  These historians could not credit Egypt because it was in Africa, and all Africans had to be of a lower "class" of human than Europeans.  Once it became obvious that they could not ignore the contributions of the Egyptian empire to progressive civilization, they characterized Egyptians as really white people who had just been "tanned" and "darkened" by the sun.  The overt racism of these historians have no doubt continued to affect our society today, where issues of racial equality still face significant hurdles.

I believe it is important to be cognizant of such biases in our history writers, both of yesterday and today, thereby establishing a firmer understanding of how that bias may affect not only their interpretations of history and current events, but our understanding as well.  Historians from two centuries ago tried to downplay the importance of the Egyptian civilization solely due to their belief that the inhabitants of the African continent had to be inferior to those of Caucasian background.  The height of Greek civilization lasted less than 500 years.  The height of Roman civilization lasted maybe 500 years.  Egyptian civilization was the dominant and most advanced civilization for well over a thousand years, if not two or three.  I think such a fact speaks volumes as to the power and effect of racial prejudice.