Discovery and Recovery: Facts, Evidence and Truth
Historians are used to thinking and writing about the dead. As we seek insight into a person, a period, or a place, our guides are old letters, cemetery visits, and reviews of long forgotten inventories, as well as attic, basement, and library searches. Challengingly, the historical record is a collection of fragments, which we piece together to construct a narrative about what most likely happened. Many of us are humbled by the realization that the process of recovery is by its nature incomplete: we can never know what happened in its totality. An all-encompassing analysis is beyond our grasp, given not only incomplete sources but the multiplicity of perspectives and viewpoints they may indicate.
Some months ago the New York Times began a job of recovery. Like other recovery efforts, this one involved remembering the dead. Not any dead, mind you. The Times proposed to recover the lives and names of noteworthy women who had died without the benefit of notice by the obituary editor and the obituary page of the Times. Previous generations of reporters and editors, the Times asserted, had ignored the contributions of women; the paper would now attempt to set the record straight. That the paper admitted its complicity in erasing women from its pages in the past—their singular, stellar contributions and the details of lives fully lived—is a remarkable move, admitting to a systematic and ancient set of wrongs and choosing to correct them. Naturally, questions emerge: How does one decide, especially as the national paper of record, to resurrect a long-deceased individual and give her the attention she deserved but did not receive at the time of her passing? Of the millions of lives to consider, who warrants inclusion? Will recognition matter as much today as it would have at the time of death?
And each of the lives recovered to date raises its own set of questions about evidence, facts, and truth. In a recent accounting, “Overlooked No More: Edmonia Lewis, Sculptor of Worldwide Acclaim,” styles department reporter Penelope Green introduces us to a nineteenth-century, African American, college-educated sculptor who gained fame and notoriety in America and Europe for her talent, gender, and race. Lewis is an intriguing subject because she not only manufactured art, at times she crafted false accounts of her own past. According to Green, biographers establish Lewis’s place of birth in upstate New York, near Albany, in Greenbush. While the precise day and year of her birth is uncertain, researchers reason it was around 1844. We learn surprisingly little about her birth parents: her father, who hailed from the West Indies, worked as a “gentleman’s servant,” and her mother, who professed Chippewa ancestry, sold moccasins and other trinkets to tourists visiting the region. But Lewis’s parents orphaned her before she reached adulthood. More fortunate than most orphans, Lewis had a wealthy half-brother who provided for her to be educated by nuns and ultimately to attend Oberlin College, where her entry into the broader world begins, as do competing tales of her life.
Oberlin, which had a reputation for progressive politics and racial justice, proved more an ordeal than a nurturing environment for the future international star. Accused of poisoning two white coeds, Lewis was abducted, beaten, and left to die. She appeared to have recovered physically but not emotionally from the trauma of the ordeal. As she approached graduation a second charge surfaced, this time theft of art supplies. Edmonia would leave Oberlin without her degree in hand.
Green informs us that after making her way to Boston and into the care of patrons, Lewis distanced herself from her own history. Scant mention of the vicious beating ever came from her. Instead, biographer Kirsten Pai Buick is quoted as saying, “She rejected wholesale the idea of herself as a victim, glossing over unpleasantness so that her experiences were more consistent with those of other internationally renowned artists.”
While the historical actor may seek to obfuscate and deny, the scholar’s task is to shed light with support from verifiable evidence. Two generations ago David Hackett Fisher warned historians of the fallacy of believing in one single truth, the fallacy of asking questions that cannot be answered, and that of seeking answers from sources incapable of informing or shedding light. In The Historian’s Fallacies, Hackett sought to tease out the ways we go about and should go about our work, challenging historians to think through the logic of the historical method. A generation later, influenced by poststructuralist analyses and the literary turn, academics posed new questions about what could be known and what was knowable. It became fashionable to acknowledge that an event, life, incident, or story was as varied as the actors who purported to have experienced it. Some took this to mean little could be known, absolutely. Over the last decade, the digital humanities have activated new data-analysis tools to tease out patterns from hundreds or thousands of observations rather than one or a hundred. Like the empirical social science revolution of the 1970s, the current reliance on data reminds us that no matter the method employed, answers to questions rely on observable and verifiable sources. The scholar’s pledge is to some approximation of a truth or truths. Indeed, our sources may offer conflicting interpretations of the past. Our job remains to account for those contradictions rather than gliding or glossing over them.
Lewis’s classmates at Oberlin may have thought her a cheat and poisoner worth punishing; she in turn may have thought of herself as a victim of racial prejudice and undue attention. Conceivably, both may have been “true.” Like most people, Lewis recognized the multipositional self that made for a life rendered. Multipositionality refers to the various dimensions of the self that animate any historical actor. Race, gender, class, age, education, color, birth order, and wealth combine with many other ways we might characterize a person to explain how they moved through the world. But certain aspects of the self come into focus in relational terms and in context. Sitting with a family member, one’s birth order, age, or gender may be front of mind, and one’ s race so subordinated as not to be relevant at that moment. As we read the obituary, it is clear Lewis understood herself as more than an American black woman. She was that, to be sure, but she was also an artist, a sculptor, and cosmopolitan. She had been raised Catholic, had attended college, and had gained fame for her artistry. She is quoted as almost complaining, “I was practically driven to Rome, in order to obtain the opportunities for art culture, and to find a social atmosphere where I was not constantly reminded of my color. The land of liberty had no room for a colored sculptor.” One can read this comment in several ways. One way is to see a woman quite cognizant of her race and gender, but yearning for an opportunity to be seen as primarily a sculptor—even if still a “colored sculptor.”
Further, we learn in the obituary that Lewis had a habit of creating a myth about her background. Her world fancied the untutored black effete; when necessary she erased aspects of her past from her history—Oberlin, art school, wealthy abolitionist patrons in the Boston area. At times she crowed about her mother’s people and growing up among the Chippewa. At other times she spewed sentiments about her maternal ancestors that to the twenty-first century eye and ear seem patently racist. Are both possible? Clearly, yes.
When confronted with complex actors, rather than flattened them into storybook characters, we strive to find contradictions. As a result, we teach students to pursue a variety of sources. We explain the difference between a primary and secondary source and urge them to consult original sources when and wherever possible. We demand that they cite all their sources. We teach the art and science of the footnote, that it is the author’s job to leave a trail so that others can come behind and challenge or corroborate conclusions. We ask them to challenge the veracity of a source, especially on the internet, because some sites are more reliable than others. We demand a kind of discernment, which is not the same as detachment. An interest in a topic or study is to be expected, but the difference between interest and advocacy must be acknowledged.
When it set out to recover the lives of women worthy of earlier inclusion in the New York Times obituary pages, the paper sought to correct an oversight. In reading the various obituaries the history teacher and student are reminded of the historian’s craft. In an age too often shaped by those who debate the existence of evidence, facts, and truth, we are reminded that even in death a historical actor can teach us about what is important. Edmonia Lewis fabricated aspects of her life, discarded other dimensions, and embellished more. Her biographers understood they couldn’t or shouldn’t take her at her word. Journalists know this; scholars do, too. The pursuit of evidence, facts, and truth is their mission and responsibility. That is the unacknowledged discovery gleaned from the Times project of recovery.
Earl Lewis recently returned to the University of Michigan as a professor of history and African American and African Studies, and the inaugural director of the soon-to-be created Center for Social Solutions. Previously a dean of the Rackham School of Graduate Studies at Michigan and provost at Emory University, he served as the sixth president of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation from March 2013 until March 2018.