Thinking About Who Gets Left Out
I was in Las Vegas. I was at an awards ceremony for Bunny Briggs. Bunny was unable to make the flight to New York to receive his award from the American Tap Dance Foundation. Instead, Tony Waag had invited a few of us to come to Vegas to honor Bunny in person. It was a lovely, intimate gathering of folks from deep within the tap dance community. After the formal ceremony there was a short hang, some picture-taking, and then the departure. Everyone said their goodbyes and began to scatter.
As I was leaving, I landed in a brief conversation with a notable tap dance historian. They were asking what kind of work I was up to, and some of my thoughts on the state of the craft. It felt like an interview, on the fly – we were both walking to our cars. Not necessarily the best context for an in-depth conversation. I don’t remember many of the particulars other than when they said, “I’m trying to figure out where to put you…I just don’t know where you fit…” What an odd thing to say to someone, I thought.
Cumulative histories are fundamentally problematic. Imagine attempting to describe in some sense of completeness the entirety of the American Civil War, or the 1990s, for example. There are many people for whom doing this kind of thing is their life’s work. Professional historians have rules of engagement to engender trust in their field and the work they publish. However, in much the same way that libraries and museums are limited by space and budgets, historians – especially the ones who publish books – are limited by word count, time, and access to sources. With limitation comes curation. Curation is the choosing of what to include and what to exclude. With choice, in this context, someone is always left out.
You may have noticed that I said someone, and not something. The perspective with which I most enjoy approaching histories is one that centers people. History is all about people. After all, the writers, actors, publishers, and storytellers are all people. While archeologists might say that objects can tell stories, too, I would agree, and add that they are telling stories about people. So, if a part of a story is left out in the retelling, I think about the people (or parts of a person in the case of a biography, for example), which are left out.
In cumulative histories, the thick books or documentary series with sweeping subjects, someone is almost always left out. Even in Ken Burn’s Jazz, the monumental documentary narrated by Wynton Marsalis, the tradition of jazz organ was barely visible, for example. There are ways to attempt to limit the potential for such omissions. One can limit the scope of study by topic – instead of the entirety of World War II, just talk about the development of air warfare strategies. One can limit by people – keeping with our example, selecting only stories of a single company during the war. One can limit by time – pick only a year, or a single event out of the war, instead of the entire thing. Another way is to limit for the purposes of a thesis – that is to be explicit and say that the stories one is highlighting are to bring a particular idea to light. This often happens anyway. Historians are people, after all. Their perspectives, attitudes, and purposes in writing often make their way to the page or screen. I don’t think this is inherently evil, although many do. Rather I suspect that the more a historian (or anyone for that matter) truly loves the topic they are writing on (or the thing they are working on), the more they will do ensure it gets a proper hearing in the eyes and ears of the public. But I digress.
Back to the nature of omissions in cumulative histories. In the context of something like tap dancing the consequences of omissions amplify. Why? Because of the potential contribution of each individual to the craft and story as a whole. Each dancer supplies a unique model of individual and artistic choices that only when put together provide a complete picture of the craft. If you leave out Juanita Pitts, Tina Pratt, or Ethel Bruneau, you miss models for the journey of life as a tap dancer. If you leave out Louis Simms Carpenter, Bernard Manners, or Frank Condos, the same happens. As someone who spent much of their life being grafted into the oral tradition of Tap Dance, I don’t even know all the names. So, I could say that my conception of the craft is fundamentally limited.
Oral traditions may have something to say about this. In the context of an oral tradition - an undocumented activity shared by a common people, purposed for their individual and communal formation – memory is quite important. Oral traditions deal with memory in two ways that are relevant to our current topic. They acknowledge loss of memory. Instead of making people try to remember everything, they focus on remembering the “important things” – whatever is necessary for the tradition to facilitate its purpose. They acknowledge the limited nature of individual memory and so often (although not always) take on a mode of distributed memory, with many in the community responsible for being keepers and sharers of the tradition.
In contrast cumulative histories are presented as a full document (or at least as full as possible) of a particular topic. The purpose behind many of the curatorial choices made are varied, as many of these cumulative histories do not spring forth from a common people. They spring forth from interested parties who have dedicated time and resources to learning, researching, and organizing information. By their very nature cumulative histories consolidate information to distribute a common narrative. They are a singular document, a snapshot in time, rather than an ongoing living support of a tradition – of a people.
As I think about this, I’m struck by the idea that cumulative histories might be necessary in instances where a society has lost their stories or traditions and needs a kickstart. What better way than to have a singular document as a point of focus for a group of people to gather around and grow through? But what about things that are ongoing? What kinds of documents or rather methods of support, do we need for the ongoing formation of ourselves and our communities?
This is the question I’m sitting with this week. I think I land somewhere between the cumulative histories as an introductory volume, human interaction as the strengthening mode, and intergenerational teaching and apprenticeship as the ideal context for formation. Notably intergenerational doesn’t always dictate direction (old to young or young to old). I think it’s important to acknowledge the limitations of cumulative histories, especially considering holding a perspective that focuses on people. It’s not that they aren’t useful, but they should be recognized as incomplete, used for what they can do well, and nothing more.