by Nora Rivera-Larkin, April 20, 2021
History is often subjective, with the primary voice being given to the winners. Accounts of historical events are often biased, and while there is much they can tell us about the people who delivered them, such as the driving force behind their actions and what rhetorical strategies and methods were crucial to their success and failure, objective accounts of history should also be brought to the foreground of discussion and show other perspectives on history, giving voice to people of marginalized communities. Some writers utilize the power of media and genre to enhance their message and to give it the larger platform it needs, like Fredrick Douglass’ speech “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” and the Munsee petition to former President Zachary Taylor. More recent works, such as the 1619 Project, look back on historical events, giving voice to those who were previously silenced. Written and oral transcriptions of historical events serve the purpose of convincing the reader of an argument, and giving an objective look at the past of this country.
Fredrick Douglass’ speech “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” demonstrates the power of public forum and the emotional weight of spoken word. Douglass connects the experiences of the revolutionaries that led to the Fourth of July holiday the people celebrate now, to the struggles of the enslaved and oppressed black people. He says, “Feeling themselves harshly and unjustly treated by the home government, your fathers, like men of honesty, and men of spirit, earnestly sought redress,” (Douglass). Douglass intertwines pathos and logos within his speech, playing on the pride of the nation, the citizens who still believe so much in the revolution and their young country, and slowly unveils the similarities between their experiences and those of the oppressed. The very presence of his speech, his articulation, and his ability to stand in front of a crowd, humble but firm, only adds to the message he is trying to convey and only further supports the idea of equality by representing his intelligence.
In addition to the oppression of black people in America, the manipulation of information throughout history is also crucial to the Native Americans exploitation by the American government. This was demonstrated with the Munsee petition, which reminded the president, Zachary Taylor, and the government of the United States of America of the history between the founders of America and the Native American tribes. They wrote, “The Commissioner’s name was Capt. Bullen, who acted on the part of the government of the United States, in making the said important Covenant of peace. He told our people to commit to Memory in their feeble way of entering into Record, such important national matters,” (Williams). The writers of the petition call out the commissioner and the government of the United States, illustrating how they played on a Munsee tradition of Wampum Records which eventually held no value or pertinence to the government. It was a ploy used to manufacture a friendship that would then be abused by the United States government. This is an example of how information can be manipulated and twisted by one side to get their way. The government, encouraging a Wampum Record while knowing it would have no meaning to them in the future served as empty promises in the wake of potential growth and benefit that the government officials wanted at the time.
Though many accounts of history only provide the pieces of information that the winners wanted to emphasize, more recent works provide a more accurate and objective view of the history of this country. The 1619 Project allowed voices often suppressed to be heard, and for history to finally be shown through the lens of those it had oppressed. It identified the hypocrisy in this nation’s birth, saying, “The United States is a nation founded on both an ideal and a lie. Our Declaration of Independence, signed on July 4, 1776, proclaims that ‘all men are created equal’ and ‘endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.’ But the white men who drafted those words did not believe them to be true for the hundreds of thousands of black people in their midst,” (Hannah-Jones). A nation built on the backs of those it enslaved and denied rights to for hundreds of years often ignores the voices of those who try to speak up about the truth of America’s founding. Projects and collections such as these challenge the pure idea of the American memory and call it into question. They are the ones who are providing a truly objective view of American history by allowing all sides of history to be properly voiced and considered.
Writing and transcription are very powerful forces in shaping history and shaping perspective. Both written accounts and oral accounts can serve as a complication to the objective view of events, but they can also hold power in analyzing history and in providing cohesive messages of change to societies. The purpose of all of these works is to convince the reader of the side presented, to justify their actions and their side of history, whether it be for colonization or change in society, but cultivating multiple perspectives of historical events is the only way to maintain true objectivity.
Douglass, Frederick. “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?”.” Teaching American History, teachingamericanhistory.org/library/document/what-to-the-slave-is-the-fourth-of-july
“Gideon Williams Letter to Zachary Taylor – Transcription.” Scalar: Login, dsp.domains.trincoll.edu/HL/hidden-literacies/gideon-williams-letter-to-zachary-taylor—transcription-uncorrected?path=andrew-newman.
“The 1619 Project.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 14 Aug. 2019, http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/08/14/magazine/1619-america-slavery.html?mtrref=blackboard.stonybrook.edu.