Can We Laugh About It?

Sometimes it seems like it is really tough to be anything but an angry historian.

A lot of us read, research, and write about gut-wrenching histories, which may be made even more so when we hold personal connections to the stories that we tell. Sometimes we cannot help but be frustrated by a museum stuck in antiquated practices. Other times, it takes what seems like unheard of patience to engage with hard-headed publics and professionals when our work gets political. It seems that the work that we do as historians often gives us little recourse apart from mobilizing the past in an attempt to satiate our anger at present circumstance.

First thing Monday morning, however, Histoire Engagée’s Mathieu Arsenault warned a CHA panel on “Historians and Advocacy” against Histoire enragée. Alongside David Dean, Sarah Nickel, and chair Gregory Kealey—who read an absent Natalie Zemon Davis’ contribution—here was a room full of historians frustrated by attempts of depoliticization and administrative barriers that remained devoted to figuring out how to use their platforms within the academy for better practices both inside and outside of it. Tenured professors encouraged their peers in the room of a felt responsibility to speak out and speak up for those still developing their careers, putting themselves on the line in an era of contract precariousness for up-and-coming academics. It was a refreshing example of professional solidarity and responsibility that has an important place in the conversations of social media discussed in yesterday’s post.

Later that afternoon in a standing-room only lecture hall set to discuss urban education, indigenous youth, and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action at “Remembering Our Past: Rethinking the Next 150 Years and Beyond,” we heard anger, heart-break, and frustration. But it was not that histoire enragée Arsenault cautioned against earlier. Rather, it was resilient, engaged, and at work. Anger at the realities discussed by Kevin Lamoureux’s experience as an educator in Winnipeg’s North End was palpable. But this was also a room full of glee, chuckling at his banter with Frank Deer. And, with Catherine Tammaro creating a welcoming community space, it was safe.

Here I was at one of the most difficult sessions to witness as an audience member at Congress 2017. And I, among the rest of those in the room, found myself laughing.

This led me back to the “Decolonizing 1867” workshop on Sunday night. In reflecting on Helen Knott’s work as artist, student, and mother, she displayed a fierceness in activism and anger as well as one in friendship and love. She pointed to displays of both joy and frustration throughout current and past indigenous processes of colonization and decolonization in this country.

Here was a display of sentiment multiplicity and complication, finding benefits in the operationalization of both.

Yesterday, two panelists on the “Collecting and Exhibiting Childhoods: Museums, Archives, and the History of Children and Youth” roundtable discussed their respective professional experience with the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. Expressing frustration over past museum practice and current barriers to timely applications of self-critical museology regarding indigenous histories in particular, both agreed that the museum’s forward-thinking in all things accessibility was one space where their advocacy was unnecessary because it was already embedded in that institution’s museological practice.

Here was relief.

The reasons why and the answers to how our given activisms as historians make us go into an archive, into the media, or into a community offer examples through the power of anger at injustice both within and beyond our own personal attachments.

So, of course, stay angry about the things that need to be changed until they are, as encouraged by Guy Laforest during yesterday’s AGM. But let’s not forget the power of the things that we can also achieve by sharing stories of resilience, laughter, and learning that focus on the good of the work that we do and the spectacular that we find in the histories that we disseminate.

It will not negate the hard histories that we tell. But it will give them nuance, humanize historical actors, and make its conversation with the present an active, informed, and hopeful one.


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