The Hazards of Understanding the Past

“Comment allez-vous?” the archivist asked, extending his hand.

“Michaela,” I replied, happy to introduce myself after three weeks of asking this person for documents.

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Reading the Grain

In order to tell the stories of people who don’t leave behind their own written record, historians talk about reading against the grain (scrutinizing the information that a writer in the past reveals for all of its biases to learn something the writer doesn’t say) or reading along the archival grain (understanding the way that archives are built to learn information about people not writing any sources). I anticipated having to employ both of these strategies when I was researching my dissertation in history on gender and sexuality among Illinois Indians, especially during my visit to the Archives nationales d’outre-mer in Aix-en-Provence, which houses all of the official records from the French colonization of North America. I expected to find a lot of documents from old white dudes, talking about the status of forts and shipping, and that I was going to have to read between the lines of all of this “official” business to discover what Native Americans were doing at the same time and how gender and sexuality factored into French colonization.

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