In the Intercultural Communication course, we talk a lot about history – how it’s passed on, who gets to tell it, whose voices are included, and whose are missing. We consider “absent histories” (which, as far as we know, were never recorded) and “hidden histories” (which are/were known, but have been suppressed, left out of the historical canon).
While looking for discussion materials for class a few years back, I ran across a fascinating article about my own town, Kalamazoo, and some little-known history from the Gibson Guitar company during World War II. During the war, the factory was staffed with women, and during those years, official Gibson company accounts stated that production had ceased on the “Banner” guitar so that all the company’s assets and person-power could go into the war effort. Except … they didn’t stop producing Banners during that time. They produced over 9,000, and today they’re considered some of the finest vintage guitars ever made.
They were built by women.
So why did it take until 2012 for this story to become a topic of public interest and lively discussion?
There are theories. One is that Gibson didn’t want the public to know that their production during that time wasn’t 100% war-related – a public-relations, face-saving thing. Another is that Gibson didn’t want the public to know that these guitars were built by women. But when the guitars from this era – when they supposedly weren’t being made at all – started to be recognized for their superior quality, collectors of vintage musical instruments started asking why.
Which brings us to another theory. Is it possible, maybe, that female crafters had a different method, a particularly refined touch, in assembling these instruments? Is it possible that these guitars are special because of their makers, along with the factory from which they came?
Guitar connoisseurs will continue to debate those questions, and for purposes of my class, we don’t need those answers. What we do need to consider is a series of questions that the critical mind should ask when previously-hidden history comes to the surface of public discourse:
Why hasn’t this story been told?
Who is served by telling it, and who is served by keeping it hidden?
Who gets to decide how, and when, a story is told?
Whose voices are included, and whose are marginalized?
In the Humanities disciplines, it’s widely accepted that much of history was recorded by the literate, white, prosperous, male. This was the segment of society with the time, means, and education to write, print, and distribute accounts of human activity. And while we should be grateful for the accounts that we have, it’s also useful to consider what may be missing – whether there are “holes” in the story, and whose accounts might be able to fill them.
One of my favorite books of all time is “Women Who Run With The Wolves” by Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes.
My original copy is dog-eared from repeated readings, so a friend gifted me a newer copy. This book is rich with myths and stories that have been passed down through the oral tradition, mostly by (and among) indigenous women. These stories, many of which were never written down until modern times, tremble and pulse with wisdom, with heart, with the flesh that lies behind what we usually read on the pages of history books.
Life is rich and complex and full of mystery. Let’s consider that the histories we know, the ones we were taught, might not tell the whole story. Let’s consider that as today’s events unfold, we still aren’t getting the full picture, because some voices go unheard. Let’s have the insight to realize that someone, somewhere, might be deciding what we get to know, and when, and how much.
And that some of our brothers and sisters are never invited to speak at all.
Winnie and the Professor