What does “lost” history really mean?

James Farmer speaking outside Hotel Theresa, 1965. Image courtesy Library of congress.

I sometimes hear people who talk about the past refer to “lost” histories. Unsurprisingly, this phrase seems to come up most often in discussions about histories of women, people of color, LGBTQ people, impoverished people, and other historically-marginalized groups.

I’ve always found this rather strange. Describing a particular kind of history as “lost” gives a pass to the forces that led to its obfuscation. Gaps in historical knowledge occur because people in power ignore or devalue the ways the groups they marginalize shape change over time. People in power sometimes destroy historical records in a deliberate way and/or manipulate information so as to maintain and strengthen their control over others and elevate their own accomplishments. They do so until challenged in some way, but in the meantime they have the means by which to secure their legacies and influence the historical record.

This isn’t to say marginalized groups don’t save and transmit information about their pasts. They do. But people with power and influence often push these stories out of the picture altogether or shape them to meet their own needs. Consider, for example, this article about the formerly “lost” history of James Farmer, pictured above. He never went missing– he was never silent about his life– and plenty of people knew his story. And yet, his story was “lost”? How?

We know all of this, right? Hegemonic structures underlie the systems we interact with every day, including the production and distribution of historical knowledge. Historians began paying more attention to the stories of historically-marginalized and oppressed people in the last half-century or so and such efforts have rewritten the historical record in monumental ways. There’s still much work to be done though and using the word “lost” obscures the reasons why these people were silenced and why their stories are missing. Describing something as lost, with no other clarification, suggests these histories somehow ran away or destroyed themselves. But people shape and change history every day. History isn’t a monolithic body of facts– it’s a dynamic body of information about the past and conclusions shaped by present-day circumstance. It’s constructed, maintained, and changed by humans and so it stands to reason that whatever’s missing from history is the result of human omission.

So instead of describing these as “lost,” let’s say why they’re really missing. People in power made and make choices to erase knowledge and deprive certain groups from shaping the historical record and sharing their stories with future generations. We can keep searching for this information, but to call it “lost” is to remove the human action that led to its disappearance in the first place.