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Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History Paperback – July 30, 1997

22 customer reviews

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From Booklist

Trouillot, a widely respected scholar of Haitian history, has experienced firsthand how the recounting of historical "truth" can be manipulated to serve the interests of a particular group in power. Nevertheless, he rejects the facile proposition that history is no more than self-justifying propaganda written by the "winners" of conflict. Rather, he suggests that we can gain a broader and more accurate view of past events by striving to listen to a broader spectrum of voices. While recognizing that competing groups and individuals may lack equal access to modes of communication, he maintains that the variety of voices is there; we simply have to work harder to hear them. To illustrate this point, Trouillot examines the untold aspects of the Haitian independence struggle as well as the ongoing conflict over the "true" legacy of Columbus. Trouillot is a first-rate scholar with provocative ideas; general readers may find themselves somewhat lost in his discourses, but serious students of history should find his work a feast for the mind. Jay Freeman --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


Now that so many grand projects of the past are up for reappraisal, Michel-Rolph Trouillot interrogates history, to ask how histories are in fact produced. . . . A beautifully written book, exciting in its challenges. --Eric R. Wolf

"An accessible book filled with wisdom and humanity." --Bernard Mergen, American Studies International

"Aphoristic and witty, [Silencing the Past] shows that the two senses in which history is made, by doers and by tellers, meet in moments of evidentiary silence. [A] hard-nosed look at the soft edges of public discourse about the past." --Arjun Appadurai

"Trouillot is a first-rate scholar with provocative ideas. . . . His work [is] a feast for the mind." --Jay Freeman, Booklist

"Trouillot makes the postmodernist debate come alive." --Choice

"A sparkling interrogation of the past. . . . A beautifully written, superior book." --Foreign Affairs

"Elegantly written and richly allusive. . . Silencing the Past is an important contribution to the anthropology of history. Its most lasting impression is made perhaps by Trouillot's own voice--endlessly agile, sometimes cuttingly funny, but always evocative in a direct and powerful, almost poetic way." --Donald L. Donham, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

"Written with clarity, wit, and style throughout, this book is for everyone interested in historical culture."--Civilization

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 216 pages
  • Publisher: Beacon Press (July 30, 1997)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0807043117
  • ISBN-13: 978-0807043110
  • Product Dimensions: 5.4 x 0.6 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.1 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (22 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #42,615 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Michel-Rolph Trouillot (1949-2012) was one of the most prominent Haitian scholars working in the United States. He was the director of the Institute for Global Studies in Culture, Power, and History and Krieger/Eisenhower Distinguished Professor in anthropology at Johns Hopkins University.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

33 of 33 people found the following review helpful By Bob Corbett ( on February 28, 1999
Format: Paperback
Michel-Rolph Trouillot argues that in the writing of history lots of things get lost and what is lost impacts our view of the past.
The first thing which is lost are some sources. For many of us there simply are no sources kept. For others there may have been historical traces but they have gotten lost or destroyed in time.
The next level of such data is that when data is collected and selected for various archives there is another level of things getting lost, sources, which there and existing, are effectively lost since there were not judged worthy of archiving.
Lastly, the individual historian much choose from the archival material what is important in telling the story of history the author is telling. Again in this process of selection events and parts of history get lost and suppressed.
What emerges as the story of history, what we, the readers and consumers of history come to regard as the REAL past, real history, is filtered in ways that we seldom acknowledge or realize.
Trouillot demonstrates this thesis with examples from Haitian history and chooses the clever divice of San Souci. There were three San Soucis. One was a person and two others were buildings. The first, the person was lost at the source. The second was weeded out in the typical archives. The last, while exciting at some level, is still not within the mainstream of most Haitian history. Trouillot books makes us sit back and realize that we have to realize there is no real HISTORY, but only the story that the sources that have survived and have been selected as important allow us to tell.
A delightful read. For a much more systematic and longer review please e-mail me and I'll send it to you.
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18 of 20 people found the following review helpful By Adam Sapp on August 23, 2000
Format: Paperback
Silencing the Past is an excellent account of how mistakes and mis-readings of history can contaminate the perspective an entire society's world view.
Troulliot's book is very applicable to the realm public history. Monuments, museums, displays and the like are all examples of how history influences our every day lives. Altough, without realizing it, we assume the things that we read and see in such places are entirely true. This is a mistake, as Troulliot points out, because, the amount we do know about our history, is only a fragment of what we don't know...and that when historians create public history they can only use the information available, which is most often the product of a white, western mind, published and tagged as 'history-proper'
Another factor in the use of history as a public tool is its tendency to be 'good' history. In that, all too often when history is presented to the public, it has a habit of being watered down, desanctified, and 'positively' presented. Only a curator with integrity and confidence would present a "full story," as more often than not, social taboos and political correctness prevent him from doing so. This is sad, as in the mean time, the historical process is damaged. What such a presenter of public history is doing when they present only favorable aspects of history is educating a public about half the story, which will then become part of a public world view, a world view, that is skewed in a way that will be very hard to correct.
A public mind is hard to change, the more a public wants to believe something, the longer they do. Believing a positive is always easier than the alternative. This is the importance of creating a sound, fair and accurate archive of public historical knowledge.
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12 of 14 people found the following review helpful By MSM on March 29, 2006
Format: Paperback
If you liked any of Howard Zinn's books, you'll like this. Trouillot's analysis of historiography goes far beyond "history is written by the victors" to talk about the deliberate and systematic way that some voices, events, and narratives are excluded from the dominant historical record. If the first section is a little too theoretical (and, for me, it was), the heart of the book is three examples, focussing on the Sans Souci, a Haitian revolutionary; the Haitian revolution itself; and Columbus' arrival on the shores of America. These sections themselves, apart from their theoretical buttressing, are fascinating studies of historiography. A wonderful book.
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34 of 44 people found the following review helpful By Austen Morris on March 10, 2001
Format: Paperback
Trouillot sets out to answer the question: How is history produced? And he does a reasonably good job in at least laying a framework for discussing such a complicated issue. He seeks a middle-ground between what he calls positivist historicity and constructivist historicity, arguing, in effect, that past events did indeed happen the way they happened but also that our memories, stories, myths about them greatly influence our understanding of them. Using as case studies the Haitian Revolution, Sans Souci (a Haitian slave turned colonel) and Columbus Day, he then attempts to show how certain aspects of events have been silenced by those in power. Trouillot succeeds in many ways; he explores issues with ample caution, gives a fine critical survey of the snags and hazy areas involved in the topic, and pins down a number of useful conceptual tools (such as the different stages in historical production at which facts might be silenced). Where he falls short, however, is ironically in his inadequate appreciation of the inherent selectivity of history - the reality that silences are necessary, inescapable, and even desirable. (By studying Beethoven's life we thereby, and properly, "silence" the life of some unexceptional contemporary). Trouillot's goal, beyond investigating the nature of historical production, is to demonstrate that those creating Western history have been biased and wrong in silencing the stories he's presently exposing. He backs up this claim with zero evidence; in spending so much time showing what has been silenced he never gets around to offering his view of what SHOULD be silenced.Read more ›
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