Zadie Smith

‘The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there. Many in England are fond of quoting that old LP Hartley line. What I like about it is that it reminds me that the past is not our plaything. The past has its own sovereignty and psychogeography, its own suffering, its own ideas about suffering’s alleviation. The people who lived and died in that strange land deserve, at the very least, our close attention and respect, both for what they went through and for how they themselves conceptualised it. When it comes to our interpretations of their lives, it is by now a truism to say that we usually go searching for what we wish to find. And perfect objectivity is, of course, impossible. But degrees of manipulation and distortion exist, and the aim is surely to mitigate against the most egregious forms of both. We want to know, to the best of our judgment, “what really happened”. We can never know for sure. All we have is evidence, documents, records, memories.

The past is not to be played with – but who can resist using it as a tool? We bend history to our will, for purposes as much personal as political. In 1999, for example, I wanted to know – for reasons of my own self-esteem – that the history of the African diaspora was not solely one of invisible, silent suffering. I wanted to hear about agency, heroism, revolt. I received all of that from Black England but also something that has proved far more important to me, over time, namely, a sense of the precariousness of “progress”. It does not move in one direction. Nor are we, in the present, perfected versions of the people of the past. It is very important that we understand the various hypocrisies and contradictions of the abolitionists. But the significance of this knowledge is not solely that we get to feel superior to them. As cathartic as it is to prosecute dead people, after the fact – in that popular courtroom called “The Right Side of History” – when we hold up a mirror to the past, what we should see most clearly is our own reflection. The judgment goes both ways. Why didn’t every man, woman and child in Georgian England drop everything and dedicate their lives to the abolishment of slavery? Good question. I like to imagine the students of the future asking similar questions about us. Why did we buy iPhones when we knew the cobalt inside them could have been mined by children for subsistence wages? Why did we love cheap clothes when we knew yet more children made them? Why did we buy plastic water bottles, every day, for decades, when we knew they were environmentally disastrous? Now, as it was then, a minority of people do indeed dedicate their lives – and risk their livelihoods – to confront these things “too big to be seen”. Whatever the ideological imperfections of such people, they are at least doing what the great majority of people don’t do, which is, something.’ (from the Guardian)

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