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Time, Place, Space, and Identity

Lucia Carter


     The French historian Fernand Braudel once wrote that the longer he lived abroad, the more he was able to understand what it meant to be French.

     As world historians exploring fields outside our immediate expertise, we should experience the same sense of self-discovery. Instead of defining who a professional historian is and dismiss the ways in which other societies make sense of the past, we should recognize that our creation of history depends upon a past that has emphasized official documents kept in state archives. Instead of defining what primary sources are legitimate for historians, we should recognize that myth is indeed more important than "hard" evidence for some societies. Let me give an example of how our way of doing history has shaped the history of others. A few years ago, most Western scholars claimed that history started with the development of writing. Based on this premise, Cherokee people began to have a history only in 1825, the year that Sequoyah developed the syllabary. But who would support this statement today?

     When we step into other civilizations, we need to bear in mind how our concept of space and time shapes our narratives. A friend and Latin American scholar once argued that the concept of Inca "Empire" is a logical fallacy because the Inca did not have an empire the way the Romans did! And yet we use and teach the term to our students, hardly aware that we are "imperializing" somebody else's history for our own uses. How about the very concept of linear time that shapes the way we do history in the West? Is that the only "professional" way to conceive history, or should we acknowledge different views of time? Who decided that anachrony (a common way of conceiving time in African History) is a less legitimate way of doing history?

     Despite all of this, I still find World History a very promising and vibrant field. The very fact that World History allows for people from different fields of expertise to meet and share perspectives is per se a device to better understand who we are first, and then allow for other identities to emerge and have their voices heard.

Lucia Antonelli Carter is an Associate Professor and Chair of the History Department at Mars Hill College. She can be contacted at


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