The Victors Write History

Recently, Texas has been in the news after its State Board of Education voted to change its history textbooks to a more “conservative, Christian view” (read more here). With the changes, America “will not be a ‘democracy’ anymore, but a ‘constitutional republic,’ the term ‘capitalism’ will be replaced by ‘free-enterprise system’, and Thomas Jefferson and the reference to Enlightenment ideas are excluded from the standards.”

Well, who cares, right? Too bad if you live in Texas but for the rest of us, it’s not that big a deal.

Wait, what? Since Texas is the largest purchaser of textbooks in the United States, its decisions influence the whole market? Well, that’s rough. That’s really rough. I happen to like Thomas Jefferson quite a bit. But I suppose that one’s freedom fighter is another’s terrorist and all that.

Yeehaw! Gonna rope me some alternative history.

Still, one has to wonder what Zadie Smith would say about all of this. The idea of history being a volatile, living thing is featured throughout her novel, White Teeth. History repeats itself yet also subtlety changes over time in both its meaning and effect. Each character’s history—or rather how they interpret it—shapes their actions in the present.

There are countless examples—from Samad’s obsession with his mutiny-starting ancestor to the story of Irie’s maternal family tree. It is very humorous when Samad and Archie argue over whether or not Mangal Pande is a hero or not. The evidence is clearly on Archie’s side yet Samad sees what he wants to see. When his cousin finds a questionable book that supports Saad’s belief that Pande was a hero and helped spark Indian independence, he breaks down and cries in relief and joy. However, Archie says it best when trying to explain to Samad the futility of his efforts by stacking ten plates on his side and one on Samad’s to represent texts that respectively support their two views. Archie tells his best friend, “Well, it would take you at least another hundred-and-whatever years to get as many plates as I have, even if you were going to make them all yourself, and the likelihood is, once you had them, no bugger would want to eat off them anyway. Metaphorically speaking. Know what I mean?” (214).

I think I do, Archie. Let me explain by using some of your own dark history, specifically the reveal at the end of the novel that you did not actually shoot Dr. Marc-Pierre Perret—that you couldn’t do it and has been living a lie for the past fifty years.

While at first, Samad is hurt that “the cornerstone of their friendship was made of nothing more firm than marshmallow and soap bubbles,” he suddenly becomes overcome with glee. He thinks to himself, “This incident alone will keep us two old boys going for the next forty years. It is the story to end all stories. It is the gift that keeps on giving” (441).

I suppose that’s one of the main points of White Teeth—that history is a story first and foremost. No matter what you read—be it a textbook or a newspaper article—there is always a certain opinion being expressed. If that opinion is too unsound, no one will want to eat off your plate. Metaphorically speaking.

And maybe that’s not the worst thing in the world. Maybe that’s the gift that keep giving—the ability to leave discussions open for years and years to come. After all, what else are Samad and Archie going to talk about at O’Connell’s? Their families?

-Matt Popkin

~ by mattpopkin on April 18, 2010.

One Response to “The Victors Write History”

  1. I agree: everything we read has some bias to it. Everyone puts their own “spin” on a story or event. That being said, even teachers teaching history can put their spin on an already spinned tale from history. We all know what happens when gossip is passed around…the story becomes much different from where it started.

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