Genocide Studies and Archival History as Public Service
by Michael E. Carter
As an Americanist historian working within genocide studies, recognition has remained a driving force in all my work. My research constantly collides with the infrastructure of systemic racism, white supremacy, bigotry, and misogyny that not only hides within some of the boxed away files of many archival spaces, but may permeate the space in its entirety. These systems, usually falsely draped in alleged history, pollute the population perception in order to aide in process of upholding civic mythologies that make recognition in the public space nigh-impossible. Distilled, my research methodology is to go beyond the layer of ahistorical civic myth that buries unpopular truths beneath layers of nationalism and silenced voices. Taking that further regarding genocide, the point is to contextualize the destruction of people. In the colonial context, that means directly dealing with Americans who have taught to see America only through the lens of victor written history. This is best explored through two examples of my own experiences.
When I wrote my Master’s thesis, I attempted to uncover documentation backing a hypothesis that sterilization abuse in Puerto Rico during the mid-20th Century was part of a genocidal agenda. Although this effort was hindered in part by my own inexperience with the National Archive’s catalog, I did move through a large amount of material related to family planning which showed that eugenicists held a great deal of influence over that realm of federal policy at the time. This was combined with other primary and secondary evidence to build the narrative. I bring this up since other examples of genocide may not be as well-defined as others – especially under the umbrella of colonial or imperial wrongdoing. There is rarely a document ordering a specific policy of annihilation or the declaration of a race war that would conveniently allow for recognition. Therefore, it is the completion of a puzzle or, more precisely, the recreation of an evidence-based narrative that leads to making a case for recognition. Directly imbedded in that process is the work to acknowledge the voices of the unheard.
There is also the issue of when external attitudes effect the archival experience. In my on-going research into one Samuel Hope, a veteran of the Third Seminole War and eventual Confederate, I had to not only wrestle with the past but with the political context of the present. Locally, Hope is still revered for his settler exploits in Florida also well as his eventual treason. He is considered a veteran all the same. His primary archival resources as well as the included secondary sources still lionized him as a hero for his actions, but they were also held by the surrounding community that agreed with them. Dealing with local volunteers, one may need to tread lightly to gain continued access to the materials so that you can use them to promote the objective fact that a so-called “Indian Killer” Confederate does not deserve the sanctified status he was granted in death. As much as I enjoyed working with those volunteers, I was also looking to correct their very own misconceptions and improper contextualization of their local hero in the long run. Perhaps it is more accurate to say I was looking to correct that material for their children and grandchildren or in students in general by proxy.
In a way, this methodology serves a public good. While I described recognition in the public space as an almost impossible feat, progress has been made in the street and in the seats of power to turn that tide. I have come to see genocide studies, at least my segment of it, as a bit of a long game. I was inspired and built upon the historiography of scholars before me such as Dee Brown with the hope that I can leave material behind to the same end; be it my students or a distant reader who finds a footnote interesting enough to pursue into the deeper material. Recognition thus continues that stated effort to chip away at the falsehoods that enforce whose history gets to be remembered or taught. Thusly, this is a pillar of major aspect of my work both in and out of the archives.
Michael E. Carter is a Kean History adjunct and alumnus of the Holocaust and Genocide Studies program. He is an Americanist genocide scholar with a specific focus on the destruction of Native American nations. He is current open projects include contextualizing the Osage Reign of Terror and researching colonial “Indian Killer” stories.