What does it mean to live through history? This question often lingers in the back of my mind, ebbing towards the forefront of my thoughts at certain moments in time and flowing away at others. However, this question never fades – maybe in part because I am a history major here at McGill. History and our current understanding of it are constantly in flux; indeed, one thing I’ve learned throughout my studies is that if you’re looking for stability, don’t choose history as your major! It is difficult to get accustomed to the fact that we live in an unpredictable world built from an unpredictable past. However, history doesn’t stop, nor do people’s narratives, and this can lead to some pretty miraculous discoveries.
Narrative is what keeps us engaged with our past and with history itself, providing a crucial link between the abstract events of the past and the personal connections we maintain in the present.
Narrative is integral to history, serving as the foundation of its complex structure. Like history, narrative can be unpredictable, fluid in nature, and even unreliable at times. Narrative is what keeps us engaged with our past and with history itself, providing a crucial link between the abstract events of the past and the personal connections we maintain in the present. However, not all narratives are treated equally. Some even appear to disappear completely from our sight as time goes on.
In 2016, the McGill library established ROAAr (Rare Books & Special Collections, Osler Library of the History of Medicine, Visual Arts Collection, and McGill University Archives), combining four rare collection departments into one with an initiative that seeks to bring the rarities, wonder, and extraordinary nature of history and historical collections to life. In particular, ROAAr’s podcast, Voices from the Footnotes, provides a fascinating example of how we live through history and connect with the known and unknown past through narrative.
Voices from the Footnotes explores history at the McGill University Library and Archives through places, people, and artifacts that have often remained hidden behind the mainstream historical narrative. This podcast provides an opportunity for stories that have been silenced in the past to become heard in the present. As Haitian-American academic and anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot states in his book Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History, “the ultimate mark of power may be its invisibility; the ultimate challenge, the exposition of its roots.” Voices from the Footnotes unearths the roots of the McGill and Montreal we know today, consequently unsilencing the past and the narratives that go along with it.
Voices from the Footnotes consists of fifteen podcast episodes, detailing hidden histories and highlighting narratives centering around McGill and Montreal. In particular, their two-part episode, “Generations,” provides a captivating story that details the lives of five generations of Black students and staff at McGill University extending from the 1940s to the present day. Detailing the lives and experiences of McGill’s first Black Carnival Queen, Beryl Dickinson-Dash (now Beryl Rapier) and two father-daughter duos – Ron and Brittany Williams, and Glyne and Adrienne Piggot – “Generations” connects the past to the present, exploring each interviewee’s unique experiences and challenges at McGill and in Montreal while simultaneously linking their stories into a broader, complex historical narrative.
Physical objects have an uncanny ability to grasp onto our memories, often allowing them to resurface only when we least expect it.
As humans, we all have a narrative – a story that follows and recounts the memorable moments of our lives. “Generations” exemplifies the power and importance of personal narrative, as well as its potential to overlap and interconnect with those of others around us. Although the five interviewees of “Generations” narrate their unique personal histories in vastly different ways, some commonalities arise and connect their stories. Conceptions and memories of space, home, and community play a significant role for each interviewee, connecting concrete, material objects with abstract memories and associations. As interviewer and host of the podcast, Sheetal Lodhia, notes, “the idea of feeling at home in a space, or feeling safe in a space, will come up repeatedly with our interviewees. And some of what we will hear is hopeful. However, some of what we will hear is sobering.” Spaces around campus and the city of Montreal have the power to evoke a vast array of sentiments depending on who you ask. Physical objects have an uncanny ability to grasp onto our memories, often allowing them to resurface only when we least expect it. Space, objects, and, both personal and collective memory play an important role in narrative and the way it unfolds. As “Generations” demonstrates, however, narrative and history have the ability to change and evolve alongside time and space.
The five interviewees of “Generations” reveal the fluidity of history and narrative as they reflect on their experiences at McGill and in Montreal. Beryl Dickinson-Dash and Glyne Piggot, in particular, illuminate the ways in which McGill and Montreal have both changed and remained the same since growing up here (in the case of Dickinson-Dash) and moving here to become a member of the McGill faculty (in the case of Piggot). Their stories highlight the ongoing relationship between the present and the past, demonstrating simultaneously that progress has been made and will need to continue to be made for Black students at McGill. Adrienne Piggot and Ron Williams speak for a more recent generation of Black students and staff at McGill who continue to have ties to the university and to Montreal. A recent graduate from McGill’s faculty of law, Brittany Williams voices her experiences at McGill and in Montreal in a contemporary context. The interconnected yet unique narratives of these five interviewees present a captivating depiction of history that calls on the past, present, and future. Their stories live on through history.
If history is a tree, then narrative is the structure of roots, bark, branches, and leaves that come together to form it, representing past, current, and future growth.
After listening to “Generations,” my question from earlier now basks on the shores at the forefront of my mind: what does it mean to live through history? At times, history seems to impose itself as an abstract chimera, taking on a form too complex and fluid to understand. How do we make sense of something that is constantly in flux? As I continue to go about my studies in history, one of my key takeaways has been this: look for the silences, the gaps, the missing voices in the historical narrative you are presented with. Reading sources ‘against the grain’ and looking for the obscured and hidden details in all narratives is the best way to learn more about the past and to contribute to its evolution. The narratives presented in “Generations” epitomize what it means, at least in my opinion, to live through history, exploring and unearthing concealed roots in the historical tree that makes up Montreal and McGill. If history is a tree, then narrative is the structure of roots, bark, branches, and leaves that come together to form it, representing past, current, and future growth.