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Tyrone Schiff

Chandra Bhimull & Janam Mukherjee

History 229

23 February, 2006

Together Forever

In the film, Back to the Future II, the main character, Marty McFly, travels back

from the past to an alternative and different future due to the fact that he had disturbed the

natural order of things in a time before his own. His tampering with the abstract concepts

of space and time had tangible effects on the future he returned to. This scenario broaches

the question of what sort of relationship exists between the past and the present. At first

glimpse, the answer may seem somewhat complex, yet just as Marty McFly came to

realize the inexorable connection that existed between his past and present, so too shall

the contents of this paper depict that deep rooted and unavoidable relationship. There are

a number of writings from historians, anthropologists, and historical anthropologists that

not only show the connection between these frames in time, but also the power struggle

that exists in the documenting of history. Due to the fact that the concept of past and

present is so abstract, two empirical cases will be the focal point of this paper. In

particular, this paper will address the trial and execution of John Brown and the

Holocaust. It will be shown that these two historical events inevitably went on to shape a

societal or cultural identity for each that persisted into the present.

In order to gain a more thorough understanding of this relationship between the

past and present, E. E. Evans-Pritchard gives us the following context in which to view

history, “history is the movement by which a society reveals itself as what it is” (Evans-
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Pritchard, 56). This quotation, thus, sets the foundation for the paper, because it asserts

that history is a component of a society or culture’s identity. Historical events formulate

an ever evolving concept of one’s society and culture.

In order to elaborate on Evans-Pritchard’s definition of history, the story of John

Brown’s body will be discussed. John Brown was an African-American who was going to

be executed during the Civil War. The thing that makes the story of John Brown so

intriguing is the impact that his death had on the society and culture that he was apart of.

During the Civil War, the way in which a corpse was treated started to have sizeable

significance. Having one’s corpse paraded around could be interpreted as praiseworthy or

sacrilegious. However, John Brown recognized that a “war for emancipation could be

viewed as a holy endeavor,” and wished to die for his African-American brethren as a

martyr of freedom (Nudelman, 10).

Additionally, there existed an interesting power struggle in John Brown’s case.

The governor of Virginia at the time, Wise, “defied those who warned that execution

would turn the traitor Brown into a hero” (Nudelman, 9). Wise was so focused on

depicting Brown as a traitor that he even thought about methods of how to manipulate the

future’s perception of him. By not allowing journalists or the public close to the actual

site of the hanging, and rather surrounding him with military force, Wise tried to

indoctrinate the public with a feeling as though John Brown was a traitor. Others would

argue that this secrecy excites the public more, and thus would become even more

interested in the case of John Brown. This power struggle between depicting what is real

and what someone may want to be real was more than true in Brown’s case.
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The reason that John Brown’s death ultimately went on to shape and mold the

identity of his culture is due to the following passage in Franny Nudelman’s book, John

Brown’s Body, “Brown’s martyrdom prefigured a wartime nationalism that relied on

individual self-sacrifice and took the escalated violence to be a source of collective

identity rather than a threat to the state’s identity” (Nudelman, 17). This quote reveals that

during this tumultuous time of war, the only way to relay anything significant was by this

method of self-sacrifice or martyrdom. However, when people took notice of this self-

sacrifice, they rallied behind its cause, because it represented “bravery…and patriotism”

(Nudelman, 14). The people that rallied behind him were sympathizers in the North, but

more so, it was the African-American society that took him in and embraced him. The

actions of John Brown and his attempt to be a martyr for the African-American culture

brought the entire African-American society together. Therefore, Brown essentially

created a national identity for African-Americans.

The implications of this are tremendous. During the Civil War, the slaves were

emancipated. John Brown, although dead, had helped to give these ex-slaves an identity

of their own. This ultimately helped band the culture together and work towards a

common goal of equality due to the fact that they all had a common identity that stemmed

from John Brown and their past. Although not every African-American may know of the

life of John Brown, their past, present, and identity hinge upon his martyr for their

freedom.

Again it will be helpful to consult with Evans-Pritchard as he explains that, “It

[history] is not concerned so much with a succession of events as with the moral

significance of situations, and is hence often allegorical or symbolical in form” (Evans-


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Pritchard, 53). This quote discusses that in relation to one’s identity in the present, it is

often molded by situations or symbols from history.

The Holocaust is one example of how morals and symbols from the past work to

develop an identity for a society or culture in the present. The Holocaust occurred over

sixty years ago, but people are still as distraught about this calamity today as they were

many years ago. This is because every Jewish person feels connected to this event, and

tries to empathize with it. One way of doing so is by allowing themselves to let the past

meet the present, or go visit a museum.

The Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. allows all who enter, the opportunity

to learn about the horridness of the Holocaust. Edward T. Linenthal wrote an account that

described how the Holocaust Museum figured out what to display. Linenthal states in one

of his passages, “Visitors enter the world of the death camps, the space becomes tighter

and mean, with a feeling of heavy darkness…there is no escape” (Linenthal, 170). This

museum allows the individual to identify with history, perhaps even their own, and shed

some light on an aspect of their own identity. The reconnection with one’s own roots of

identity is also not only limited to Jewish people, “The faces of many victims, not all

Jews by any means, assault, challenge, accuse, and profoundly sadden visitors throughout

the exhibition” (Linenthal, 174). The consequences of the Holocaust were enormous. It

inevitably affected the entire world due to the scatter that occurred after it, and the

countries that were involved in it. There is no denying that the Holocaust has ultimately

shaped a new identity for much of the world.

Similar to the John Brown’s case, the Holocaust possessed a power struggle of

representation. In the Holocaust Museum, many of the people in charge of the displays
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were ambivalent to put, “out a lot of Nazi memorabilia. The songs and the banners and

the objects are alluring…Concern that the exhibit could, in effect, unintentionally

glamorize the Nazis…made the naming and design of exhibit segments problematic”

(Linenthal, 199). Although it would never be anyone’s intention to glamorize the Nazis,

it wouldn’t be historically accurate to wipe all of their artifacts away. Therefore, power is

a critical component in revealing history in this case as well.

In both of the texts that were discussed, John Brown’s Body and Linenthal’s

“Preserving Memory”, they were similar in the way that they constructed the relationship

between past and present. In both cases, events from the past shape the identity of the

society or culture due to the fact that in each society or culture history is inherent to the

identity of that particular society or culture. The reason why past and present are so

connected is due to the aforementioned statement. Yet, the texts are different in how this

identity is initially constructed. In the case of John Brown, the public rallied around a

martyr who was dying for their cause of freedom, whereas, the Holocaust is an event in

which people identify and empathize with one another.

The backbone that holds the connection between the past and present is the fact

that events that occurred in the past cause a societal or cultural identity to be created

which forms and reforms as time goes on into the present. This is true in the empirical

evidence given by John Brown and the Holocaust Museum. Therefore, one is forced to

admit that the relationship between past and present is analogous to a chain that is linked

together by societal or cultural identity.


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Bibliography

Evans-Pritchard, E. E. [1961] 1962. Anthropology and History: A Lecture. In Essays in

Social Anthropology. London: Faber and Faber. 46-65.

Linenthal, Edward T. 1995. Chapter Four. In Preserving Memory: The Struggle to Create

America’s Holocaust Museum. NY:Viking. 167-216.

Nudelman, Franny. 2004. Introduction; The Blood of Millions; The Blood of Black Men.

In John Brown’s Body. 1-70.