Publication Date

November 1, 1997

Perspectives Section


The following essay and the essay "Minority Histories, Subaltern Pasts” by Dipesh Chakrabarty were adapted from presentations made at the 1997 annual meeting of the AHA. Given the overflow crowds at the panel session, we are publishing these essays to give members who missed the presentations a chance to read the arguments.

I operate on the assumption that the limits on my knowledge lead to a useful question about how, or if, the history of the United States fits into the global history of colonization. It seems revealing that the participants in the American Historical Review‘s recent stimulating forum on subaltern studies included a historian of India, a historian of Latin America, and a historian of Africa. As a member of the AHR‘s editorial board at the time, I was enthusiastic about the subaltern studies forum and did not lament—or even notice—the fact that no United States historian participated.

And that, it seems, was a matter of intention rather than oversight. In the opening essay in the forum, Gyan Prakash remarked, "While the operations of power relations in colonial and metropolitan theatres had parallels, the conditions of subalternity were also irreducibly different."1 When I stop and ponder that sentence, and when I contemplate Prakash’s statement that the term subaltern “refers to subordination in terms of class, gender, race, and culture,”2 I have one of those moments that punctuated my days in graduate school, moments whose content can be summed up in the sentence, “Everyone else seems to understand something that I am not even glimpsing.” As a historian of the American West, I can think of hundreds of case studies of subordination in terms of class, gender, race, and culture. Moreover, many of those occasions occurred as part of a process that included elements we identify with colonialism: invasions backed by military force; impositions of sovereignty staffed by appointed bureaucrats, often in alliance with recruited leaders from the native elite; extractions of resources and labor; and coercive projects in education and cultural suppression, run by missionaries.

This recognition of similarity and assertion of comparability was why I have argued for dropping the word "frontier" from western American studies and substituting the word "conquest." When I think about the conquest of American Indian tribes and of Mexican people, I see a lot of similarities between invasion and conquest in the territory that became the United States, and the invasions and conquests that took place in Latin America, Africa, and Asia.

Of course, there is an enormous and unmistakable and, indeed, irreducible difference in the arrangement of numbers. Viewed strictly in a numerical sense, "minority history" in the context of South Asia or Africa would presumably mean the history of white people. I am very much aware of the very different arrangements of demography; of the shifts in meaning of the terms minority and majority in the various settings of colonialism; and aware, as well, that there is a big difference between empire extending its reach overseas, and empire incorporating people living on land that is contiguous to the seat of empire—land that actually becomes a part of the nation-state.

Discursive Fields and Fields of Study

Still, in response to the question, "Has 'Minority' History Transformed the Historical Discourse?" my answer is, "It sure has." My own field of western American history owes its revitalization primarily to ethnic history. In the mid-1980s, one heard frequent obituaries for the field of western American history; its organizing models were dated and stale; it was a quaint backwater of only antiquarian interest. If I had any doubts about this state of affairs, they were resolved in the early 1980s, when as an assistant professor at Harvard, I had graduate students telling me that senior professors had advised them not to take my western American history course because it was only a peripheral subject.

However, western American history came to life in the last decade and emerged from its status as a fading backwater. The engine of that revitalization was the shift from a plotline focused on the westward movement of white people to multiple stories of people arriving in the West from all possible directions, and from every possible point of origin.

This transformation of content was directly correlated to a transformation of discourse, as a narrative of constricting coherence and clarity was surrendered—a narrative as effective at excluding meaning as it was at excluding people of color. The surrender of that narrative set off some worries about whether we could or would come up with a replacement narrative that had a comparable clarity and cohesion. We do not seem to have come up with that alternative narrative, and that may be a perfectly acceptable state of affairs. Indeed, I often arrive at two contradictory appraisals of whether we need a new synthesis that seems to depend on the academic calendar.

During the summer and during vacations, I look at the yearning for a new synthesis, and see an understandable but unexamined nostalgia for a clarity and coherence we never deserved to have in the first place—a clarity and coherence that came at the price of an accurate reckoning with the complexity of history. However, when school is in session, and I am doing my best to make what we are talking about in class on Wednesday have some connection to whatever we talked about on Monday, my appraisal of the yearning for synthesis is very different. Then, I join up with the yearners; then, I want very badly to know how I am supposed to be tying the history of Filipino American farmworkers in California to the history of African American sharecroppers in Mississippi, how I am supposed to be bringing a lot of very interesting histories of different groups into the same intellectual unit of inquiry.

But in the kindness of providence, the semester will eventually come to an end, and I can vacation in that serene and cheerful intellectual territory where a buzzing, fragmented, unresolved, unintegrated way of talking about the past seems the most intellectually honest way of capturing the equally fragmented, unresolved, unintegrated material of history. I simply cannot tell which is the more plausible and justified proposition: (1) that wanting a coherent narrative and synthesis is a perfectly legitimate and appropriate desire on the part of people who have to give lectures in first-year survey classes and who deserve, moreover, to know where their monographs and specialized studies fit in a larger picture; or (2) that wanting a coherent narrative and synthesis is an unproductive desire that is inherently nostalgic and retrograde, since coherence was never anything but a delusion, and a destructive and exclusive delusion at that.

The Untransformed Discourse

As much as the ground may have shifted beneath writers of American history on some counts, there is one way in which the ground has not shifted, and the discourse remains untransformed. The principal common cause between historians of the West and ethnic historians lies in the recognition that understanding United States race relations demands a more expansive and complex framework than the usual model that focuses on relations between white Americans and African Americans. Indian people, Mexican people, and Asian American people play such a central role in western American history that the historian of that region is denied any opportunity to settle into the usual binary model of black-white relations. In West Coast cities like San Francisco or Seattle, for instance, the presence of a significant Chinese American or Japanese American population affects the situation of African Americans in all sorts of ways. Bipolar models simply have to yield to models that can reckon with more complicated, multifront encounters.

However, my own impression is that the journey here has just begun. Books like Cornell West's Race Matters focus on African Americans, with only the briefest references to Latinos or American Indian people. The image of the model minority often leads to the nearly complete omission of Asian Americans from discussions of United States behavior on the matter of race. I hope to be proven wrong about this, but it seems that we creep slowly toward a real transformation of the discourse, away from the black-white binary.

The transformation also seems incomplete on another count. When social historians set out to discover the history of people silenced by conventional records and methods, they appropriately drew an equation by which greater numbers and greater proportions correlated to greater significance. That was, after all, the whole point: to take attention off comparatively tiny groups of elite white males, and to direct attention, instead, to the much larger numbers of non-elite, working-class people. Although that was productive and worthwhile, it had the effect of overdrawing the connection between numbers and significance. Take an incident like the relocation of Japanese Americans to concentration camps during World War II: 130,000 people were affected, a virtually invisible percentage of the United States population. Yet this incident is heavily freighted with meaning for the United States and its Consti­ tution, for the question of civil rights during wartime, as well as for the down-to-earth disruptions and injuries brought by the casting of a group of people as dangerous and alien. Thus, the new histories of people of color challenge social historians to reconsider their willingness to let quantification set the measure of significance.

Facets of Knowledge, Facts of Power

I turn then to a couple of other questions that have puzzled me. In a recent graduate readings course on the American West, the students and I returned repeatedly to this question: Is a scholarly preoccupation with culture and cultural distinctiveness causing us to fudge some very basic questions about power and economic dominance? In quite a number of books set in the American West, one senses a formula. The author studies a particular group and highlights the ways in which that group—an ethnic group, a group of women, or a group of workers—exercised a significant degree of self-determining agency. This often involves noting and celebrating a series of cultural successes by which these people managed, despite the restrictions and constraints imposed on them, to maintain and redefine their family structures, their religious practices, their internal processes of self-governance, their forms of expression, and their sense of identity. In the bulk of a book following this pattern, chapters on family, religion, internal governance, ritual, art, literature, music, and cultural identity are thus full of good news and cheerful outcomes. Sitting alone and almost quarantined from the rest of the text is the chapter on economics, in which it turns out that this group, for all its varieties of cultural self-maintenance, was trounced economically. Thus, with our attentiveness to cultural self-determination, we obscure and evade the facts of power.

I think, for instance, of the criticisms sometimes brought against David Montejano's Anglos and Mexicans in the Making of Texas. This book does not follow the pattern described here. On the contrary, it says very little at all about the cultural characteristics and practices of Mexicans in Texas. It directs attention instead to the structures of domination by which Anglos took the land and labor of Mexicans. When Montejano published his book in 1986, he was bucking a trend and was thus faulted for his inattention to Mexican cultural self-determination. But I wonder now how appropriate that criticism was, and whether we might profit from a scholar saying that there is no point in fudging the story of economic loss with some kind and congratulatory remarks about how rich the Mexicans were in culture.

Tracy Ainsworth, one of my graduate students, has characterized this pattern as "winning all the cultural battles, and losing the economic war." Culture becomes the consolation prize, the compensation awarded to offset and obscure the fact that one group took control of the land or labor of another group. We have become so ardent in addressing agency, in ferreting out all the ways in which a group of oppressed people still managed and directed their own destiny, that we have nearly silenced ourselves when it comes to referring to the ways in which they were taken advantage of and overpowered. The formula "active agents, not passive victims" has unintentionally proven to be a good way to draw attention away from the agency, name, and responsibility of those who accumulated coercive power and used it to injure culturally enriched but economically ripped-off groups.

The Dominant and the Subaltern: Unpacking the Structures

This has a lot to do with the historiographical situation that African historian Fred Cooper describes. In a certain study of native resistance to colonialism, "what is being resisted is not necessarily clear, and 'colonialism' sometimes appears as a force whose nature and implications do not have to be unpacked."3 When scholars chose to accent precolonial African self-government, African resistance to colonialism, and postcolonial African independence, Cooper notes, “what was most neglected was colonial rule itself.” To Cooper’s cohort in graduate school in the early 1970s, “bringing a similar specificity of inquiry to that which was being resisted risked having one’s project labeled as a throwback to imperial history.”4

I am struck by the various references in the AHR forum on subaltern studies about the need to study the colonizers. According to Prakash, in defining the field, Ranajit Guha argued that subaltern studies “would not ignore the dominant, because the subalterns are always subject to their activity.”5 And Florencia Mallon adds that Guha felt that “because subordination is a two-way relationship involving both dominated and dominant, elite groups would also receive consideration in the work of the subaltern studies scholars.”6

I confess that it would be all right with me if I went through the rest of my professional career and never again heard the names of Collis P. Huntington or Harrison Gray Otis, William Gilpin or William Tecumseh Sherman, or (here my sense of relief would be beyond measure) if I were never again to hear the names of George Armstrong Custer or Elizabeth Custer. However, the remarks on the necessity of a better and deeper understanding of the elite, the powerful, the profit-makers, the dominators still brings me to attention. It is possible to read a number of fine books about the motives, consciousness, initiatives, cultural self-determination, and economic troubles of a group of people of color, without ever even hearing the names of the people who imposed those troubles upon them. Moreover, this does not get close to a picture of the reciprocal, mutually influencing, interactive relationships between the dominated and the dominators.

The conversation on subaltern studies also reminds an American historian that, to quote Florencia Mallon again, "all subaltern groups were internally differentiated and conflictual and that subalterns forged political unity or consensus in painfully contingent ways."7 When, as she says further, “local power relations are taken into account, the solidarity and unity of the subaltern presence—of subaltern culture and thus of subaltern resistance—begins to come apart in our hands.”8 As Fred Cooper remarks even more bluntly, an early version of Africa-centered history had “little to say about Africans who conquered other Africans or about the slaveowners… who made other Africans bear the burden of expanding commerce.”9 Cooper notes the persistent historiographic risk that “struggle within the colonized population—over class, age, gender, or other inequalities”—will be “sanitized.” He also remarks on the risk that we will waste time differentiating strategies we will label heroic and resistant from strategies we will label collaborationist and traitorous.10

As both he and Mallon note, women's history offers a particularly sensitive piece of territory here. As Mallon puts it, "In a sense, women could only choose between systems of hierarchy, colonial or ethnic/ communal…. [I]n many cases, [for women] colonialism simply added a new and invasive kind of domination to the old," and this is commentary that certainly seems to have bearing on matters like the ways in which Chinese American women or Mexican American women faced gender subordination both inside and outside their groups' boundaries.11

As I read these remarks, I thought of a number of occasions when I found this topic so uncomfortable that I simply fell silent. In recent years, I have been astounded at how well some neoconservative scholars exploit these divisions and claim, for instance, that because Indian tribe fought Indian tribe, or because the Spanish first conquered the Pueblos before being conquered, in turn, by the United States, there was no basis for Indian people or Mexican people to claim that white Americans had done them any injury. I suspect that my own discomfort made me quieter than I should have been, and permitted the neoconservatives to score points with this silly argument. Especially on the matter of patriarchy within an ethnic culture, and the way in which women of particular ethnicities carry a double burden—subordinated both by their own society and by the dominant society—I have more or less consciously decided that this is a topic on which a white woman could most beneficially contribute to the conversation by keeping quiet.

Revisioning the Past: The Risks of Engagement

This brings me to another effect that historians of peoples of color have had on historical discourse. Entirely new areas of inquiry have opened up; topics that once seemed familiar and predictable are now defamiliarized and intellectually stimulating. And yet, while a wonderful enlivening of the conversation among historians has been unmistakable, I am also aware of ways in which the conversation has turned quieter, more timid, more reluctant to risk engagement.

I refer to the escalation in one's chances of saying something stupid—of intruding into turf in which one proves to be ill-informed, ill-prepared, and where, even with the best of intentions, one can inadvertently make a remark that offends and injures in unforeseen ways. I suspect that there have been more moments of silence, occasioned by a recognition of this risk, than we realize. From time to time, I think of a weekly race relations seminar that a friend and I started up in our hometown in 1968. For the first few meetings, a number of concerned citizens of Banning, California, engaged in what were probably the most polite, evasive, and unrevealing discussions of race ever held in the United States. In an atmosphere so thick with pious understanding, no one had any inclination to be the first to say, "I'm not entirely sure I understand."

Then my older sister came for a visit. She is a very pleasant person, but close attention to racial tension in the United States has never been her strong suit. So she listened for half an hour or so, and then began to look increasingly puzzled. Sitting next to her, I began a seated version of ducking and crouching, terribly aware that my sister was about to speak, and consoled only by the hope that people would say to me, afterward, "Could she really be your sister?”

When she spoke, she did so without any sense that the words she used were well-established clichés. Directing her remark to an African American college student, she loudly and clearly said, "Just what do you people want?" At 17 I came very near an early death from embarrassment—until I noticed that my sister had actually opened up the conversation. In her wake, a number of people could begin to say, "While I am by no means as ignorant as that previous speaker, I'm not sure that I really understand your concern about x or y." The thick fog of pious understanding cleared, and the conversation got a lot better.

Now and then, at a convention session, I end up wishing that we had put together the money to buy my sister a plane ticket and bring her on board to do her conversation-opening routine. It seems to me that we stand, from time to time, on the edge of serious and illuminating discussion when a perfectly appropriate nervousness about saying something dumb and awkward shuts us up.

As one last remark of some self-indulgence, I will say that recent events in my life have made this timidity more wearing for me than it was before. Last July, my husband was diagnosed with a cerebral hemorrhage, the effects of which, for a brief time, completely cut off his short-term memory. He is fully recovered, but before that recovery was certain, I spent 11 days haunting the hallways of Boulder Community Hospital. I learned more than I ever wanted to learn from neurologists and neurosurgeons about the miraculous functioning of our brains. Several times in the ICU waiting room, thoughts about the sometimes peculiar uses that academics make of their brains would preoccupy me. I reached the predictable conclusion that if our neurons consent to store memories, we might want to provide those cooperative neurons with more in the way of memories of mutual understanding than of mutual alienation.

My husband's recovery may have reduced the immediacy of those reflections, but the events of the holiday season changed that. On Christmas night, directly across from our house, a six-year-old girl was murdered, and police and newspeople occupied the street for weeks. The view from the living room window made sure that our attention remained focused on the fact that a life ended just a few feet from where I sat while writing these remarks.

So 1996 gave me a curriculum built around this unmistakable lesson plan: however differences of power, culture, income, and race may divide us, we still have one foundation for a claim of human universality, and that is our mortality. Whatever their differences of subject matter, method, or interpretation, historians are, by calling, people who refuse the power of death, who struggle for what they know will be incomplete glimpses into the lives of those otherwise silenced by death. Between the time spent in the ICU and the time spent across the street from the crime scene, I ended up with an even greater appreciation of the mission of historians, and an even greater frustration that our awkwardness and discomfort sometimes keep us from making the most of our shared commitments and concerns. In the starkest meanings of those peculiar terms majority and minority, the dead are the majority and the living are the minority, and that, surely, is a recognition that could transform the ways in which we conduct our discourse.


1. Gyan Prakash, “Subaltern Studies as Postcolonial Criticism,” AHR Forum, American Historical Review, 99, no. 5 (December 1994) 1480.

2. Prakash, 1477.

3. Frederick Cooper, “Conflict and Connection: Rethinking Colonial African History,” AHR Forum, 1532.

4. Cooper, 1522.

5. Prakash, 1477.

6. Florencia E. Mallon, “The Promise and Dilemma of Subaltern Studies: Perspectives from Latin American History,” AHR Forum, 1494.

7. Mallon, 1500.

8. Mallon, 1511.

9. Cooper, 1521.

10. Cooper, 1533–34.

11. Mallon, 1510.

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