Widgets Magazine


Forgotten tragedies

The opposite of truth isn’t always lying — sometimes, it can be forgetting. There are so many chapters of our history that remain forgotten, either through deliberate action or through our own callous inattention, and they reveal something important about our priorities today.

The question of what makes it to our books and newspapers is always complicated — is it the number of casualties, the nature of the tragedy or simply how marketable the story is? Whatever the reason, we lose something vital when we stop studying the past in its variety and complexity, because what we choose to remember and keep alive in our collective conscience informs how we see events playing out today. The market of ideas we nourish is important —  and yet, so many important wars and famines and crimes are relegated to the blank spaces of history.

Editing out inconvenient parts of the past — be it memories of how a nation was built on the backs of slaves or that wealth inequalities today result from exploitation from decades ago — erodes our understanding of the world. Without history, there can be no intelligent news coverage, and without either, millions of people stay victims: nameless and powerless. We can’t read about Mugabe’s policy and understand whether it’s a “land grab” or a “reform” if we don’t know the colonial past of Rhodesia and the migrants who make up Zimbabwe. We can’t grapple with the persecution of the Rohingya if we don’t explore the murky past and shifting definitions of their identity. History is not just text in a book — it is the living, breathing people who are products of a complicated past who still fight to survive that history.

In the Nuba Valley, indigenous, unarmed people are killed everyday, and yet the tragedy isn’t covered by major news networks. There are many reasons that this atrocity goes unheard, but one reason is that understanding a conflict so deeply entrenched in local and historical narratives is enormously difficult. But the historic complexities of identities shouldn’t be lost to our short attention spans and the marketability of clear-cut narratives — because so much of what’s wrong with the world today stems from that oversimplification.  

The tectonic plates that lie under our physical world move beneath our feet everyday, and often, the only suggestion we see is an occasional tremor on the surface. The same is true for the societies we build: They move constantly, and we need to acknowledge the tremors. Even when they’re called microaggressions — we need to dig for the historical movements underlying them.

Nuba Reports asks When a child is struck by a missile, do you watch?” It is a hard, uncomfortable question. It feels much easier to forget that this tragedy exists, that this enormous suffering is taking place at the same time that we are on this earth. But some people don’t have the privilege of forgetting, because that tragedy is the reality they live, and for their sakes, we can’t turn away either.

Robert Harrison, in his ESF talk this past Friday, spoke about how we can either choose to be the heirs of our history or its orphans. But what particularly struck me was when he said that the more the present offers itself as an outcome of the past, the more the present looks like an incubator for the future.

We are the future, and we are the inheritors of this world. When we’re going up and onwards so fast, it can be hard to look back. But we have an obligation to do so — especially when we are at a place like Stanford, where this information is actually available to us, and where we’re encouraged to find it. It’s a pity that history was the most popular major for the 10 years between 1955 and 1965, and yet last year, only 2.79 percent of the degrees conferred at Stanford were in history.

Fred Moten wrote, “I believe in the world and want to be in it. I want to be in it all the way to the end of it, because I believe in another world and I want to be in that.” Stanford is a place where it’s easy to believe in the future, but we will never move towards a better tomorrow without fully acknowledging difficult histories and their continued effects on the complicated present, even if that means looking at a child getting hit by a missile.


Contact Rhea Karuturi at rheakaru ‘at’ stanford.edu.