What do we do with history? I’ve been toying with this question over the past two weeks after seeing “Django Unchained.” It’s an important idea to consider. Quentin Tarantino’s latest film explores the past brutality of the South in a particularly heart-wrenching manner that calls out for justice. Yet justice is impossible as the movie is set over 150 years ago and deals with imaginary characters. The fictional nature of the story, however, does not take away from the sense of accuracy surrounding some of the more vicious scenes. Seemingly there is little one can do now to correct for our country’s darker history as it is presented in the film. What are we to do with this modern retelling of history? What role should the past play in the future and in our daily lives?
Is history a guide? Should the lesson from “Django Unchained” be that slavery is wrong and we should really watch out for that in the future? In 1905, philosopher George Santayana wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” But in the case of slavery, we are in little danger of repeating the same mistakes. The United Nations protests the systematic enslavement of any peoples on earth. Child enslavement and forced prostitution are major global issues that the majority of civil society can agree are grossly unjust. Aside from the stance against slavery, the movie doesn’t have an overtly political cause associated with it. It’s not trying to make a statement about today’s society.
The question is broader than just the story Tarantino weaved on screen. The story involves the pieces of history we carry with us every day. As a history major, I think historical literacy is important. The tagline of my column, “the view from carr,” implies a historical perspective on current issues. I hope to raise the salience of past mistakes. Unfortunately, the Orwellian memory hole is an all-too-common phenomenon in today’s 24/7 news cycle. The past is often buried beneath the immense weight of the present. Too often we see familiar mistakes in the policies of our national and campus leaders. Understanding the broader trends throughout history can help us solve future problems and avoid past mistakes. In my mind, history provides a rubric—a scoring card that can be used to measure ourselves against our ancestors of old and recent memory.
Measured against the scorecard of the past, “Django” is a triumph. A white director created a critically acclaimed film that pitted a black star against his primarily white tormentors. Sitting in my theater in a primarily Caucasian suburb, Tarantino was able to make the audience cheer for Django in his redemptive journey. Some might call my applause a manifestation of white guilt, but I think it was part of an almost post-racial moment. The audience wasn’t rooting for Django because of his race but because of the injustice of the institution of slavery. It was a battle of good against evil, not race against race. “Django” shows us how far as a country we have come since plantations dotted the South and men in chains worked in fields. An understanding of history is needed to grasp the uniqueness of this moment. Half a century ago, Durham had theaters that were divided into sections according to race. Now people of all races can watch Jamie Foxx together as he travels the landscape of our shared history. There is still much to be done to fight the forces of ignorance and intolerance, but the scorecard has been looking a whole lot better as of late.
This vision of history as a rubric is useful as it allows us as a society to look at where we stand today versus where we have been. It allows our society to critically examine areas where we need to improve and appreciate the accomplishments we have already made. In this way our past uniquely ties us to the future, as it alone provides a measure for our current state. Without a time to look back on, it would impossible to make judgments about where we are.
Colin Scott is a Trinity junior. His column runs every other Monday.