Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Revisionist history, revisited

I have to admit I was a bit surprised by the little debate caused by my earlier post on what it means to call a historical account "revisionist." I guess I just take it for granted that our cultural narratives are, for the most part, told by the dominant mainstream group, and because of this, events impacting marginalized individuals are all too often overlooked or misrepresented. But based on some of the comments and emails generated by that post, I'm reminded that this isn't common knowledge for everyone, and that this idea meets with some resistance from conservative quarters.

So when the story of Shoshana Johnson popped up in one of my news feeds, I thought it was a good opportunity to illustrate my point. Most people in America can tell you who Jessica Lynch is. They can identify her picture and tell you her story. Most people in America have no idea who Shoshana Johnson is. And why is that? Was Lynch's story any more fascinating or heart-warming than Johnson's? Is there some significant difference between the two women that makes Lynch a more admirable character? No and no. Then what is the relevant difference? Why did Lynch receive hour upon hour of media attention while Johnson's ordeal and rescue were barely mentioned? I suspect you know the answer to these questions. But just in case you don't, here's Johnson's analysis: "If I’d been a petite, cutesy thing, it would’ve been different."

So there you have it. If Johnson had looked right, if she had fit into the right demographic, if she had conformed to the image we have of "woman rescued by gallant uniformed men" in the collective imagination, she would have received the media coverage too, and we all would recognize her name and be able to tell her story. But because of who she is, she never became a part of our history.* And that's revisionism, right there, built into the dialogue and thus having a profound impact on the way we remember things.

*"History" with a lowercase "h"... our shared recollection of things...


  1. Anonymous2/10/2010

    I thought our collective fascination with rape had a lot to do with the differential coverage of this. Since Lynch was younger and white, there was this unspoken fixation on the possibility that she would be sexually assaulted by her captors. But of course, black women can't be raped in our culture. They exist in a perpetual state of sexual availability, lack personal autonomy and ownership of their bodies, and are sexually deviant. These qualities make you unrapeable, so it's less newsworthy when a black woman is captured by the enemy.

  2. What an amazing story, and to think that the media didn't care! Thank you for sharing.

  3. Anonymous2/11/2010

    I think this is a good example of how we selectively tell stories and remember events differently based on that.

  4. Bailey2/12/2010

    Great post!