Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Erasing History

Jessi Duffner
Dr. Adam Johns
Seminar in Composition
29 October 2014
Throughout the first book of the Lilith’s Brood trilogy, Dawn, by Octavia Butler, the Oankali present the idea of erasing history. They seem to think that history in the hands of humans will cause more harm than good. They finish destroying the Earth the humans left in rubbles and begin to create a new one. In today’s world, most individuals (myself included) find the idea of abolishing history absurd. Many people believe it is best we understand history and learn from it. While the Oankali have several interesting ideas on how to approach certain topics, I do not believe we should take their ideas literally. This story told by Butler should be used to show why history is so important to the human race.
As the book unfolds, we find that the human race has nearly destroyed itself by means of “humanicide” or nuclear warfare. The few humans who did survive were captured by the Oankali. The Oankali have spent a great deal of time attempting to repair the earth. They have gone so far as to mutate plant life and completely change animals. When Jdahya informs Lilith of how the Oankali have destroyed what ruins were left on earth she becomes flustered:
“You destroyed them? There were things left and you destroyed them?”
“You’ll begin again. We’ll put you in areas that are clean of radioactivity and history. You will become something other than you were.”
“And you think destroying what was left of our cultures will make us better?”
“No. Only different” (74).
The Oankali seem to function by eabolishing history entirely and recreating their lives. For one, they are capable of genetically altering many things. Also, they feel as though destroying history is the only way to a fresh start. Another instance where the Oankali show they want to discard history is shown when Lilith asks to have a piece of paper and a pen. Lilith believes this is a simple request. She only wants pen and paper to aid her in learning the language of the Oankali. However, Nikanj responds to this request quite angerly:
“I cannot give you such things. Not to write or to read.”
“It is not allowed. The people have decided that it should not be allowed” (132).
Leading up to this exchange of words, Lilith was spelling out names in the soil. After a short while, the letters would disappear. She wanted paper to document what she was learning and to potentially speed up the learning process. The Oankali, however, do not allow Lilith to document the words she is learning. This would create records of history. The Oankali believe in forgetting about the past and so they deny Lilith’s request.
I would like to denounce the Oankali’s perspective on history. I feel as though understanding our history is essential to shaping a better world. Our view of he past shapes the way we view the present. We study history to learn about those who came before us: what they have accomplished, what they have failed to do. We use the knowledge we acquire to shape the best future for ourselves. Without full knowledge of the past, history will surely repeat itself. While history is most commonly linked with the political agenda (war and leadership), this is not the only instance where history is important. David Crabtree, founder of Gutenberg College, has unique way of explaining why history is so important. While stating examples, he writes:
“When you go into a doctor’s office for the first time, you invariably have to fill out an information sheet that asks about your medical history. Some of these forms are very detailed, asking questions that require information from rarely accessed memory banks. Why does a doctor ask these questions? The doctor is trying to construct an accurate picture of your state of health. Your health is heavily influenced by the past. Your heredity, past behaviors, past experiences are all important determinants and clues to your present condition. Whenever you return to the doctor, he or she pulls out a file which contains all the notes from past visits. This file is a history of your health. Doctors understand very clearly that the past matters.”
History is important in all aspects of life: big or small. We need history to properly make decisions.
            While Butler uses the Oankali to dangle the idea of abolishing history in front of us, we must realize history is undoubtedly important. The past tells us much about the problems we face now. If we do not listen, we may end up where we began. The power of history has shaped us into the beings we are today, and it must continue to do so in order for humans to properly progress.

Works Cited:
Butler, Octavia E. Dawn. New York: Integrated Media, n.d. Web.

Crabtree, David. "The Importance of History." Gutenberg College Great Books. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Oct. 2014. <>.

1 comment:

  1. There’s a danger here of just repeating easy, familiar generalizations about the value of history. This essay will be most interesting if you engage with details of the Oankali argument (without necessarily agreeing with them, of course).

    There’s a kind of mistake here which seems important to how you read the Oankali: “The Oankali, however, do not allow Lilith to document the words she is learning. This would create records of history. The Oankali believe in forgetting about the past and so they deny Lilith’s request.” Now, obviously your right that they forbid her writing & historical records & that they say that humanity will be changed from what it was, and therefore, apparently, no longer needs its history. What’s missing here is the nature of Oankali memory. Remember how the Oankali keep prints of people which *cannot be forgotten*? Also, they have a seemingly biological memory of every past “trade”. So it’s not at all true in a simple sense that they believe the past should be forgotten. That doesn’t mean you’re totally wrong, either. We have evidence that the rememember perfectly - at least they remember certain things in certain ways. But we also have evidence that they believe that humans, at least, should forget certain things. What’s missing here is nuance - an attempt to figure out what they want to remember and what they want to forget. There’s a logic here, but what is it?

    Your example of the doctor’s office is interesting. Here’s the question: how would the Oankali respond? Presumably they would say that the history they need is recorded in the body itself. When you read genetic code and body chemistry fluidly, what purpose does “medical history” in our ordinary sense serve?

    You’re on a fundamentally good track, but you oversimplify the Oankali relationship to the past. They have one, but it is different from ours, and they want to force humanity into something like their way of relating to the past. So you might still be correct that they are abolishing history (a detailed written record of events), yet they are profoundly interesting in rememembering aspects of the body not usually included in history. It’s not a matter of having or not having a relationship with the past, but of figuring out what their relationship with the past is, and *then* articulating what you think about their way vs. our way.


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