By Injee Hong
Anybody who tries on my eyeglasses for fun is shocked when they see just how bad my vision is. It is amazing to think that the very same glasses that give me such clarity distort the world for other people. You’re probably wondering why I’m starting this week’s post with a discussion of my poor eyesight. It may admittedly partly be an attempt to garner some sympathy. However, it is more due to the fact that my history class had extensive discussions about different lenses we use to understand narratives from the past. Much like my glasses have a different effect on me than they do on others, the lens historians choose to use can completely change how a narrative is constructed.
Our assignment for week two was to choose a family to investigate and look at census records from the early twentieth century to construct a dynamic narrative about them. Like I mentioned in previous posts, I am from a small town approximately ten to fifteen minutes from historic Princeton, New Jersey. One of my favorite study spots is Princeton’s state-of-the-art public library, and I have fond memories of “working” (more like procrastinating) with my friends there in high school. The plaza directly adjacent to my favorite procrastination spot is named after Albert E. Hinds, and despite the number of times I have walked through the plaza, I never knew Hinds’ life story. I knew he had made many contributions to the Princeton community, such as reopening the Colored YMCA and helping pave the main road, Nassau Street. However, I wanted to know more about his and also his family’s life narrative, and thus, I decided to investigate the Hinds family’s lives in the early twentieth century.
Looking at census records was quite a fascinating experience that I had not had before. In particular, it was amazing to see the inconsistencies present in different records. Although mistakes are inevitable and expected because census enumerators are only human, there were numerous misspellings and contradictions that I encountered. This showed me that the quality of historical scholarship is largely restricted by the quality of the primary sources available to historians. From the years 1900 to 1940, the Hinds had different young adult family members moving in and out of their household. It is unclear why Christian Hinds, for example, appears in the 1905 state census but disappears by the 1910 federal census. This is a classic example of a silence that exists in a primary source and that does not have a clear explanation. However, this silence creates an opportunity for informed interpretation. I personally concluded that different family members may have been moving in to the Hinds household to care for the growing number of young children Albert’s mother was having.
I couldn’t help but notice the lack of change present in the Hinds’ household. Dr. Egge had challenged us to pinpoint the most significant change in our chosen family’s lives from 1900 to 1940, but I struggled to find something to write about. I realized, however, that the lack of change actually spoke volumes about restrictions placed on African Americans, even in Princeton, a supposed bastion of progress. I thought about how Arthur Hinds, Albert’s father, probably passed the homes of white professors at Princeton every day on his way to work as a janitor. That contrast of opportunity clearly demonstrates that continuity in people’s lives is often not something they choose to have. In the case of the Hinds, they had little economic and social mobility due to the color of their skin, but Albert Hinds’ ability and desire to transform the very community that placed these restrictions on him makes his contributions even more admirable. He reopened the Colored YMCA in Princeton and contributed to paving the main road in Princeton, Nassau Street, where the university is located.
The exercise of writing a family’s narrative made me realize the huge responsibility we have as historians. I realized that depending on what lens I chose to use when exploring and telling their story I could completely change how their lives were portrayed. Having that knowledge is both exciting, but also somewhat nerve-wracking because I want to do people’s stories justice. The statement that with great power comes great responsibility holds true not just for Peter Parker but historians too.
1 thought on “The Responsibility of Crafting Narratives”
Enjoyed your article. It made me think about the type of lens used in history textbooks to explain the lives of our founding fathers.