When its little paper houses are burned, memory finds refugee in mouths that sing the glories of men and of gods, songs that stay on from people to people and in bodies that dance to the sound of hollow trunks, tortoise shells, and reed flutes. -- Eduardo Galeano, Memory of Fire: Genesis 137
The Europeans who came to the Western Hemisphere in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries understood the power of memories. The people they conquered, in many cases without much opposition, remembered a different time and a different culture, developed over many centuries, and their memories gave them strength. Some of the existing societies had, in addition to highly refined oral traditions, systems of writing and written documents. In an attempt to counteract the danger of powerful memories among the Mayas, the Spaniards burned their books. Eduardo Galeano suggests what the book burning might have meant to those who witnessed it.
Fray Diego de Landa throws into the flames, one after the other, the books of the Mayas.
The inquisitor curses Satan, and the fire crackles and devours. Around the incinerator, heretics howl with their heads down. Hung by the feet, flayed with whips, Indians are doused with boiling wax as the fire flares up and the books snaps, as if complaining.
Tonight, eight centuries of Mayan literature turn to ashes. On these long sheets of bark paper, sings and images spoke: They told of work done and days spent, of the dreams and the wars of a people born before Christ. With hog-bristle brushes, the knowers of things had painted these illuniminated, illuminating books so that the grandchildren's grandchildren would not be blind, should know how to see themselves and see the history of their folk, so they should know the movements of the stars, the frequency of eclipses and the prophecies of the gods and so they could call for rains and good corn harvests.
In the center, the inquisitor burns the books. Around the huge bonfire, he chastises the readers. Meanwhile the authors, artist-priests dead years or centuries ago, drink chocolate in the fresh shade of the first tree of the world. They are at peace, because they died knowing that memory cannot be burned. Will not what they painted be sung and danced through the times of the times?
Attempts to burn memory are always futile. The memory of a people is carried in song and story, as inspiration and understanding of a better past, as hope for a better future.
However, what Marilyn James refers to as the "white historical perspective" has had a powerfully negative effect. The history of the last five hundred years in the Americas is for most of us an unknown story. Although we may have studied American history on numerous occasions through elementary, secondary, and post-secondary levels of schooling, we know little of the real story of the first Americans and of the multitudes who have been struggling for five hundred years to preserve their cultures, have their voices heard, and determine their own destinies. The American history we have heard has been told basically from one perspective, that of the invaders and the conquerors. The history we do not know is the story of those who have been colonized and disenfranchised. Without this perspective we cannot understand or analyze with accuracy or objectivity the reality of America today.
Dangerous Memories is meant to challenge our memory of the last five hundred years of history in the Americas, to reassess the origins of the societies that developed in the Western Hemisphere, to question fundamental assumptions about the disenfranchised, to reread history with a more critical eye, to critique our own understanding of that history. It is meant to make us reconsider our funamental viewpoints and assertions about who we have been and who we are now as nations and people.
Writing history is the art of making choices; it requires choosing perspectives and choosing sides. In this book we have tried to present writings that are not well known, to encourage the reader to investigate resources that are certainly available but not widely publicized, with the hope that they will be jolted into an appreciation of the narrowness of commonly held historical perspectives. We have been selective in the voices and events included, choosing to give voice to the marginalized, those who refused to give in or give up in the face of overwhelming firepower. We have chosen to present what was accidentally lost or purposely suppressed.
Some may call this approach one-sided and therefore not objective. Our purpose is not to be objective; our purpose is to try to be honest. The critical question for historians is not "Is your material objective?" but rather "Is it true?" Those who speak from the white European perspective often use the term "objectivity" or the goal of "presenting both sides" as ways ot cover their own biases. To present Columbus's voyage to the Western Hemisphere as an "encounter between two cultures" is not objective; it is simply wrong. What most of us have received in terms of history has been one-sided. What we present here is indeed the other side, the side of the persecuted and the rebels. We do so without apology. As they approach this material, readers should ask the same questions that should be asked of traditional histories: "Is this presentation true to the historical record" Whose interests does this history serve? What is the purpose of its writing?"
Ultimately, the study of the past should enable us to see the present more clearly. The study of the Americas' past should lead to an understanding of present-day realities and injustices. Further more, hearing the voices and stories of the courageous, reclaiming dangerous memories, should empower us to take hold courageously of our own responsibility to work together to frame a future which is truly characterized by justice for all the peoples of the Americas.