Historical Interpretation: Too Many Cooks in the Kitchen? by Katie Runnoe and Brittany Brocker
In our first reflection on this semester’s readings we discussed the idea of experiencing raw data in order to have a more organic, self-driven interpretation of historical artifacts. We expanded on Michael Frisch’s discussion of raw and cooked data in Letting Go?, wherein raw history is derived from “relatively unmediated” sources, and users rely on ‘professional’ interpretation to produce a well-cooked and easily digestible “receivable presentation of some kind” (quoted in Adair, Filene, and Koloski 129-130). Frisch seems to believe that professional historians and experts from specific disciplines are the master chefs of historical interpretation, but after our discussion of class readings and Middleton A. Harris’s, The Black Book, we now believe that anyone who shares a personal experience with historical artifacts has the ability to create a culinary masterpiece. The digital and public humanities now give everyone the easy access to share his or her own interpretations of history, and therefore exercise a different type of historical authority.
We began our discussion of authority in history by taking a closer look at The Black Book. This text presents artifacts such as photographs, newspaper articles, and personal letters from African American history without commentary by experts in the field. We felt that this gave the reader truly raw material to interpret in his or her own way. After further examination and deeper thought, we realized that since this is a collection of raw data, it inevitably cannot be completely “uncooked.” Middleton A. Harris exercised a form of authority by picking and choosing what artifacts would appear in this text, and therefore an inherent interpretation is already presented to the reader. Through Harris’s selection process he chose the artifacts that he found to be worthy of this book, which gave him authority and unavoidably cooked the data to some extent.
We focused on a particular letter written from an African American man charged with the crime of marrying a woman of a lighter skin tone to the justice in charge of trying his case. At first glance, we assumed this was a raw artifact since it was not accompanied by a historian’s commentary. Upon closer inspection, we realized that because this artifact is part of a collection it has already been acted on by Middleton A. Harris’s authority. The only way we can truly perceive this as a raw data is if we could interact with the original document without knowing what it is about and without ever having read it. We believe that as soon as we read the artifact and form our own personal experience with it we already begin to perform and share our own interpretations. This is our way of enacting authority over it, and therefore cooking down the material.
The two of us then began a discussion of what this artifact meant to us given our own personal interpretations. We brought different ideas to the table due to our differing memories and experiences. This showed us that memory is what allows us to appreciate and form our own interpretations of history. We have different pasts and personal experiences that allow us to understand this letter in our own unique ways. We were able to exercise our own authority over this artifact when we shared our personal experiences with this particular document.
This realization brought us to yet another discussion: memory v. history. We feel that the raw data is the representation of historical events, whereas memory is what allows us to personalize the history. Those who have experienced the actual event in history would inherently have a different interpretation of the event due to their personal involvement with it, which would suggest that there is a difference between an actual historical occurrence and personal accounts associated with it, as Dr. Wolfram von Scheliha mentioned in class.
Because there are so many cooks in the kitchen, the actual historical event may get diluted through our differing personal interpretations. The original flavor of the event is at risk of being lost due to the over-seasoning of our personal experiences. In a user-driven world, history may be masked by our interpretations and our ability to easily share these via the digital and public humanities. This suggests that authority is inevitable, as we are constantly cooking down whatever is left of raw historical data. Even if we are presented with true raw data, such as the original document from the letter mentioned earlier, the memories and experiences we bring to the table may prohibit us from taking away anything of substance but mere table scraps.
As editor of The Black Book, Toni Morrison combats the distortion of African American history by white authority as discussed in this video.
Adair, Bill, Filene, Benjamin, and Koloski, Laura. Letting Go? Philadelphia: Left Coast Press, 2011. Print.
Harris, Middleton A. The Black Book. 2nd ed. New York: Random House, 2009. Print.