Silences in Primary Sources

by Injee Hong

The difference between primary and secondary sources is something that has been drilled into my head since my elementary Social Studies classes. (Remember the simpler days when history classes were called Social Studies classes?) I grew up defining primary sources as documents written at the time of the incident or events they were describing. However, as I have progressed through my undergraduate history career, I have realized that the distinction between primary and secondary sources is not as clear-cut as I may have once thought in elementary and middle school. Because if you think about it, doesn’t a secondary source kind of act as a primary source by showing you how people at the time are conceptualizing and internalizing past events?

These sort of philosophical questions are ones my history seminar class has been investigating these past two weeks of Block 2. We haven’t fully resolved the primary versus secondary source debate, but it highlights the lesson we keep learning — history isn’t as straightforward of a discipline as we may have once thought, but that’s what makes it so fascinating (at least to me). This post is going to kick off a series of posts I will be writing about things I am learning in my seminar course. This class is meant to be the capstone of my history major, which is a scary, sometimes unwelcome reminder that my undergraduate career is coming to a close. However, it has been a simultaneously rewarding experience to bring together all the skills I have learned in my other history courses leading up to seminar.

The course has completely been reimagined (thanks to Dr. Sara Egge) to better fit the block schedule Centre has adopted for the fall semester. Instead of working on culminating, 25-30 page research paper, we are tackling a different, crucial aspect of historical scholarship each week. Primary sources, narrative writing, historiography, and oral history are some of the topics we will be covering, and I am excited to bring you all along the journey of completing the final course for my history major.

The theme that really struck me this past week was the presence and importance of silences in primary sources. Specifically, my class looked at Barbara Jordan’s 1976 Democratic National Convention Keynote Address. Jordan’s speech was particularly historic due to the mere fact that she, an African American woman, was delivering it. The historic nature of her speech is something she addresses herself at the beginning of it. However, she does not mention any of her notable personal accomplishments such as being the first African American woman to be elected to the Texas Senate after Reconstruction. There are multiple possible explanations for why Jordan decided not to mention them – perhaps she wanted to be humble or maybe she wanted to focus the audience’s attention on the accomplishments of the Democratic Party as a whole?

Although frustrating at times, these silences are what make the work of historians not only necessary but also interesting. Historians work in these grey areas to make educated guesses about both the intentional and unintentional motivations for silences. Personally, it is hard knowing that I will never be able to reveal or understand the whole truth, but this quote from John H. Arnold’s History: A Very Short Introduction brought me comfort that my love of history is, in fact, worth it – “at once the impossibility and the possibility of history: that history, which aims at the whole truth, cannot ever reach it (can only ever be a true story) because of the myriad of things which must remain unknown; but it is this very problem which allows – or rather, demands – that the past be a subject for study, instead of a self-evident truth.”

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