This semester I was tasked with the question, What Challenges Does A Historian Face In Recovering The Voices And Perspectives Of The Subaltern? There were so many challenges I never finished the assignment. Challenges of defining the terms, limiting the focus, widening the sources, finding a starting point (if there was one to be found), and otherwise.
I encountered the same problems there that I have elsewhere: my own desire to write something comprehensive — perhaps this is my Western fetish for controlling a narrative, but here also my desire to avoid a narrow reading — to speak from more than one angle of a subject, and the desire to account for the multiple histories at work while sticking on point and in word limit.
A lot of this is to do with the nature of the study, the challenges embedded within the very problem under investigation. You could start with class analysis and miss gender and race, critical intersections without which “class” is robbed of its currency. You could assess a certain era or epoch or follow the criteria set by one particular writer or school, but fail to see their “embeddedness” in a history that spills beyond particular boundaries. It’s because the subaltern is submerged, hidden and present within, behind and beyond any one moment, theory or articulation.
Where to start, then? And where to conclude, when the stories are always unfinished business? Reading Reiland Rabaka’s Africana Critical Theory: Reconstructing The Black Radical Tradition, From W.E.B. du Bois and C.L.R. James to Frantz Fanon and Amilcar Cabral recently has helped me appreciate the multidisciplinary, multifocal approach I’m after — that this is a good thing — but also the difficulty, the wordiness, the space needed for this kind of work.
4,000 word essays are too short!