Digging deeper: Finding the counter narrative

Hacienda San José

This past Summer I had the chance to travel around Peru and visit a variety of different historical sites. One of the places I visited was a beautiful estate on the southern cost, Hacienda San José. The property was nothing less than stunning, a grand entrance, a courtyard, a wraparound porch, a swimming pool, an impeccable lawn, and even a beautiful chapel. My guide told us many people rent out the estate for weddings or come for a weekend getaway, as it is now a luxury hotel and restaurant. He also warned us that after we got his tour of the estate none of us would want to rent out this space for a wedding, he was right.

The group I was with and I took a tour of the slave tunnels that were underneath the entire property. The low stone ceilings in the basement and narrow tunnels that lead from cramped room to cramped room were disturbing on many levels, especially when our guide pointed out the bones of slaves in one area and the room in which the doctor decided which slaves were fit and which ones didn’t deserve to live. After our underground tour we all walked outside past an ornate buffet, through high ceilings and on the spacious green back lawn. Our guide told us about how the slave tunnels under the estate stretched miles, all the way to the coast so that the people who lived in this area could get slaves directly from ships with out having to pay taxes. In addition, the families that lived on this land were able to keep slaves long after slavery was abolished because of this secret trade and the isolation of the area.

It was not until recently that I realized what I was exposed to was the counter narrative of this estate. In mainstream culture we are often exposed to one narrative, the master narrative. The master narrative is the story most people are told about an event, it is looking at events and history from the way mainstream media or textbooks tells us to look at it. This shapes the way in which we view different events and impacts the way we live our lives. A counter narrative is any way of looking at an event that challenges the master narrative. An example of these narratives is the history of Christopher Columbus. The master narrative of Columbus is a journey of exploration and discovery that resulted in Europeans finding a “new world”. A counter narrative to this history is one of destruction and invasion that focuses on Columbus’ wanting to enslave the Native Americans.

When I saw the slave tunnels and learned about the history of that estate I viewed the beautiful architecture and landscaping of the estate with a new lens. This is the power of the counter narrative, it impacts the way we see things and events. It can change something from being beautiful and pure to complex and tragic. This is a way to deepen understanding of U.S. history, specifically with regards to the history of black people in the U.S. At the DNC in 2016 Michelle Obama gave a speech where she said, “I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves” (Jacobson). The white house is seen as a place of power and a symbol of the United States, but how often do we think about who built it? When have we taken the master narrative as the only narrative? I think when we look only at the master narrative it over simplifies history and makes it difficult for people to see how racism has been engrained into many different aspects of our society. How can we help bring light to other counter narratives that can create a deeper understanding of U.S. history and how this history impacts society today?

3 thoughts on “Digging deeper: Finding the counter narrative

  1. You made some really good points about counter narratives and master narratives. You’re right; America does not like counter narratives. Michelle Obama, for her words about slaves building the White House, was criticized by some even being called unpatriotic. It is scary how much of history is covered up just because it is not the preferred mainstream history (White History) or because it shows us as Americans in a bad light for the way we’ve oppressed others.

  2. Cassie, I think what you wrote here is very insightful and gives a wonderful example of master and counter narratives and the powers they both hold. I agree with Michael in that we should be fighting for the revision of textbooks that only convey the master narrative. Its tough to come up with ways we can effectively accomplish this, but I think we need to be holding the authors of these texts accountable for the light they portray certain histories in. It’d be interesting to take a look into the process of writing a history textbook, but I wonder – are people of color involved in the writing process? Do they consider other perspectives in their writing? Are the texts based on purely factual information? What counts as pure fact? Is objectivity achievable? How much subjectivity should be allowed and whose subjectivity should it be?
    I think these are all really relevant questions when discussing history in general.

  3. Our education system doesn’t much value the counter-narrative. Maybe the first step as white US citizens is to incorporate histories other than white histories into our education system, and if not that, actively educate ourselves as well as those around us in other histories. The school curriculum leaves so much out and so we don’t know how to even search for counter-narratives in our every day lives. I’m sure lot of people didn’t know that the White House was built by slaves before the first lady said anything about it. We don’t actively look for those counter-narratives and so are shocked to find them right under our noses. We never even thought to ask. I think it’s time to update our history text books for sure, but it’s also important to teach ourselves and the upcoming generation how to think critically about master and counter narratives.

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