Unsilencing the Past

This last week students in both my public history classes discussed Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History. Silencing the Past is one of my favorite history books, and an incredibly important discussion of how power shapes our understandings of history and how history produces and maintains power. Trouillot maintains that every historical narrative is a “bundle of silences.” These silences can occur at the level of story but also at the level of fact creation itself – power shapes not only what and how we tell the story, but what “facts” get preserved and entered into the historical record before we construct our narratives. As a Haitian living in exile from the Duvalier regime, Trouillot knew first-hand how those in power can demand and enforce silences, and the importance of preserving the hearing the voices of those silenced.

Silencing is all around and sometimes it can be really subtle. Other times it can feel like gaslighting, when you know something to be true but those in power insist that it is not. As Trouillot writes, “We are never so steeped in history as when we pretend not to be, but if we stop pretending we may gain in understanding what we lose in false innocence. Naiveté is often an excuse for those who exercise power. For those upon whom that power is exercised, naiveté is always a mistake.”

In the context of Avondale Estates, of which I have been writing so much these last two months, I see this naiveté at work. I hear that some folks are agitated about a recent story in the AJC about Avondale because it dredges up the past. I’ve heard this complaint before. Why bring up the history? It’s in the past. We all know it happened. (If we do all know then what is the harm? The fact is we all don’t know.) These objections proceed as if history is some fixed point in the past that we are no longer connected to, as if we are not steeped in it, at a time when that history is being invoked to solicit change in the present. Ultimately this denial is a move aimed at pretending power isn’t at work now. A kind of false innocence present today, as if larger systems of racism and segregation were or are no longer a factor. If we view this history as solidly in the past, with no relevance for the present, then change isn’t necessary. And power remains masked.

I write all this to illuminate my motivations for writing in the way I have about Avondale Estates’ past. I know that most residents are not overtly racist; and that some are even actively anti-racist. But some also harbor some misconceptions about race and racism that work to silence those who would draw attention to our community’s racist history. And this amounts to a kind of racism.

My motivation for writing the posts about Avondale Estates has its roots in 2017. That fall, my graduate public history course was completing a project for the City of Avondale Estates, an interpretive report that would research Avondale history, assess the city archives, survey area stakeholders and suggest themes and directions for future history activities, including commemoration of the Centennial in the mid 2020s. Students eagerly embraced the work, finding ample evidence of Avondale’s progressive planning, community spirit, and architectural preservation. They also unearthed less attractive storylines. They discovered the incident with John Parker in 1998 and located the Congressional report that cited this incident as further evidence of the need for the Voting Rights Act in Georgia. They stood on street corners during Art Walk asking people about their interests in and knowledge of Avondale history. They interviewed business owners and heard stories about the Black proprietors who used to occupy those locations. They surveyed the disorganized papers on the second floor of City Hall, noting the years of missing records. They interviewed individuals who had attended Avondale High School during the 1980s and heard their stories of pain and discrimination. They met with a small group of long-time residents, imbibing their stories of bygone Avondale.

Based on the information gathered the students drew up a survey to distribute to residents assessing their interests in Avondale Estates history. They listed subjects that had emerged in prior conversations with residents and others, such as architecture, green space, origins, and race relations/desegregation. When the time came to send the link to the survey out, the City Manager asked to see the text and indicated that the survey link would not be sent to residents unless the reference to race was removed. When I asked him why this was necessary, the reply was that it had “nothing to do with Avondale history.” No amount of explaining our survey methodology, or pointing out that residents had indicated an interest in this subject would move him to reconsider this demand.

“We are never so steeped in history as when we pretend not to be, but if we stop pretending we may gain in understanding what we lose in false innocence.

Now said City Manager grew up in Avondale Estates and graduated from Avondale Estates High School in the early 1980s. The idea that he had little knowledge of race relations then could be perhaps an understandable blinder from growing up white; the idea that he had no inkling that race was part of the history at all is an incomprehensible falsehood. He knew about John Parker because he said he didn’t want people protesting outside City Hall. He was prepared not only to silence the past, but silence any voice that dared ask about that past. Was he protecting his father’s legacy? Guarding his support among older residents? Protecting the image of Avondale Estates? Maybe all three. I’ll never know for sure and he wasn’t talking. But I do know that power was being exercised upon me in that moment, and that this silencing, and my own compromises with it, weighed on me for years, both as an educator and a historian.

Naiveté is often an excuse for those who exercise power. For those upon whom that power is exercised, naiveté is always a mistake.”

My recent blog posts are an attempt, however, belatedly, to address my complicity in that silence and redress that mistake. I returned to the students’ notes, did additional research in the newspapers and online archives available to me during Covid. I read about the Klan and Atlanta history and the nature of early 20th century suburbs. I scanned the Census for Black families and scoured Ancestry.com for further evidence of those families over time. And in doing so, it became clear that the history of Avondale Estates was inextricably rooted in white supremacy and segregation. This conclusion about a small Southern city may seem so obvious as to not require discovery, but as Trouillot remarks: “History is the fruit of power, but power itself is never so transparent that its analysis becomes superfluous. The ultimate mark of power may be its invisibility; the ultimate challenge, the exposition of its roots.”

In exposing and explicating the roots of racism and power in Avondale Estates history, I have no desire to shame individuals or cast aspersions on my adopted home. I love living in Avondale Estates and so does the rest of my interracial family. But for my family, and in listening to and for the voices of people of color, I must shatter the silences that render systemic racism invisible in my community; silences that depend on not talking about who has power and how they are shaping the story, about the voices we listen to and those we discount.

Trouillot invites us consider that historical authenticity resides not “in the fidelity to an alleged past but in an honesty vis a vis the present are it re-presents the past.” He invites us to create a relationship to what is known, to be “both actors and narrators” of history, situating our relationship to the past with the “struggles of the present.” I hope, that in establishing a relationship to this history in the present, our community may authentically become more just and inclusive in the future. Un-silencing our past can play an important role in that transformation.

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