Colourful History

The way i see it.
My world in my most formative years shaped me into a certain kind of someone.
Vermicious Knids (crop) - Roald Dahl

Vermicious Knids (crop) – Roald Dahl

The cultural landscape that formed me, was shaped by all of the generations of individuals before me. It was not only made by my immediate family or neighbours. The physical landscape of my cities and my forests all hold shadows of the history of the power structures and conflicts that have shaped me.

if we accept this as true…

Why is it that my particular ‘history’ as far as history class is concerned, dictate history as conqueror and conquered? Why is my history preselected by my familial ancestors when the embodied history of my Region is what most strongly influences me? Why is the history of indentured labourers from India supposed to be more relevant to me when the history of african slavery and white colonial power equally shaped the cultural context of my world?

I have long felt that this sort of racialised view of history is truly useless.

It is useless because the past does not exist in any tangible way, but in artifact and memory. We tend to be defensive of the artifacts and memory that we identify as our own. In multiethnic societies, that ownership tends to be racially polarized. My question to you today is – what is the real value in that? What is the value of that when the story that belongs to a particular place is comprised of the victors AND the defeated – all sharing the same landscape and different sides of the same coin. Not only is the racially polarized version of events inaccurate, but it’s also dangerous. It allows people to either hate themselves or think far too well of themselves. It encourages blindness and ignorance. It makes a very rich history into propaganda.


I saw a video with one mans reflections on the Ferguson events that really stuck with me. Click here. He articulates very well something that’s been lurking in my mind for a long time. What if we were able to accept a non racial view of history as our own story? Wouldn’t that be more helpful in understanding the real give and take of civilized society? Wouldn’t a less polarized view of history teach our children more about the actual shape of our world and the real cost of development and growth? Couldn’t we make a more sustainable future for ourselves with a more integrated view of global events and a more level headed view of the people around us?


The shape of your value system and your expectations arises out of the palimpsest that is your silent but ever present cultural id. 

For myself, being from the Caribbean, I’ve internally claimed African and Indian history as my own. Never before though have I integrated European Colonial history as a part of my own story. Internally, I’ve held on to the oppressed and oppressor roles. I’ve come to realize though that that’s neither right nor helpful. Without understanding both sides of the equation – without claiming both roles of Caribbean history as part of my own – I am leaving out significant territory in my cultural understanding of myself and the world as I’ve come to know it. I’m also leaving out the knowledge that comes from the mistakes of our ancestors, claiming only the seeming virtues. Every side is ripe with knowledge that can only bring growth.

Vermicious Knids-Roald Dahl-Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator

Vermicious Knids-Roald Dahl-Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator

Colourful Histories

The first chapter of my Master’s thesis looked at the history of Carnival in the Caribbean. In order to represent the syncretic nature of the festival, I chose to tell 3 separate narratives: the African story, the European story and the Indian Story. One story would not have done it justice. Now, having lived in metropolitan societies with many cultural groups, I’m beginning to see how the history of any given place is layered by many stories. Neighbourhoods become defined by cultural and racial borders, so that the city itself becomes a tapestry that immediately reflects the cultures that constitute its parts.

That being said, although there is great beauty in seeing the diversity of a place and people, I can’t help but wonder at the effect of separating the larger historical narratives of a society into racial counterparts. Why, for example, is the history of Black Americans segregated as Black History? Why isn’t their narrative equally represented as American history? Why is Native American history in Canada, taught as Native American studies? Why isn’t it just Canadian History? I can’t help but wonder if allowing history to be represented in racially skewed narratives does more harm than good. Is it still useful in society for the prevalent history to be by the conquerors? I would argue that there is nothing to be gained through a polarized history of a place or people.

There are many more useful insights to be gained from stories like those presented in Malcolm Gladwell’s books or Freakonomics or from podcasts like This American Life that look at real stories of real people. There’s a great Ted talk from novelist Chimamanda Adichie called ‘The danger of the Single Story’ that illuminates what I’m getting at with much more poise and eloquence. In her example she talks about the narrow way in which people respond to her, when they discovered she is from Nigeria. She talked about moving to America and being perceived as ‘African’ for the first time. She talks about the danger of creating single visions of entire cultures that preclude the opportunity for true empathy between cultural groups.


In a world that is learning to incorporate many cultures into the mainstream, we need to ease up on looking at individual histories as ‘us’ and ‘them’. That is no longer really useful. As an immigrant to Canada, it’s sometimes nice to be recognized for my cultural differences, but at the same time there’s danger in being seen as outside of what’s normal or expected. Being different makes it hard for people to respect you and impossible for you to feel like a real member of the society, when you are constantly reminded of how ‘other’ you are. People take for granted that they know my history because they have some vague notion of what being from the Caribbean might mean, based on all inclusive vacations, bad movies and Reggae music. They’re not interested in being corrected either. They’re already convinced of their own imagined story of my ‘otherness’.

Maybe there’s a more temperate way for everyone to look at history and cultural diversity. I wonder for example in the modern situation of world travellers, if we can demand truer histories of the places that we inhabit that are more inclusive of all the stakeholders of places and events. I wonder if it’s possible for people to back off on believing that they know everything about everyone and look at the world without the need to polarize things.