The Story of Misalem and Historical Revisionism

When Schaffa tells Damaya the story of Misalem, the evil orogene who tried to destroy Yumenes, he makes it clear that Misalem is the antagonist and that Damaya does not get to envision herself in the role of the hero Shemshena. I never thought to question the validity of Schaffa’s telling of events until Alabaster later reveals that Misalem was actually trying to avenge his family who was taken from him. This act of historical revisionism by the Guardians made me think of the novel The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead which I read in Dr. Cooper’s class last semester. In Whitehead’s novel, history is being revised as it happens to fit the narrative most beneficial to those telling the story, similar to the Guardian’s version of events on Misalem.

The main character of The Underground Railroad is Cora, a runaway slave attempting to make her way north in a fictionalized version of America where each state treats African-Americans drastically differently. In South Carolina, Cora gets a job at a museum where she works in an exhibit acting as a slave for the museum-goers. In an interview by Whitehead, he explains, “there’s a scene on a slave ship where Cora is sort of happily swabbing – and not below decks in chains, as she would have been. And then there’s life on a plantation, where she’s happily sewing and not being whipped in the fields“. This scene in the museum frames a revised history as fact; the exhibit windows only allow a watered down version of the truth to be presented, but because this information comes from a museum it is accepted. This reminded me of when Schaffa first tells Damaya the story of Misalem. When he claims “Misalem promptly used [his orogeny] to kill every living soul in several towns and cities” he is not explicitly lying, he is just leaving out some of the truth. I started to wonder why I took Schaffa at his word and realized it was because he was an authority figure. During Cora’s time in the museum, I knew the depiction of slavery was false but anyone who goes to a museum expects to be taught the truth, and it is unlikely that the facts presented will be challenged. It was only when another figure who has authority in some capacity tells a different version of Misalem’s story that I  finally reevaluated Schaffa’s version of events.

The main problem with historical revisionism is that it does not need to be an explicit lie to have a damaging effect on the full truth. In Whitehead’s novel, the people of South Carolina saw themselves as progressive in how they treated African-Americans, but they also refused to take real responsibility for the horrors of slavery occurring in other states. As Whitehead says, “the museum presents this false, sanitized version of American life for the nice white people of South Carolina who come to see it“. In the bubble of a museum, a version of events can be depicted that isn’t really a lie but also doesn’t represent the entire reality of the situation. This reminded me of my own High School experience and how tragedies like the Trail of Tears or Japanese internment camps were given less than a day of instruction before we moved on. These classes technically did tell us about the awful events; however, they failed to adequately put blame on American leaders from the time. It’s easier to gloss over the ugly past of a nation by telling a more idealized version of events so that the horrors of the reality doesn’t have to be addressed. While this allowed South Carolina the absolve themselves of any blame in the treatment of African-Americans in the Underground Railroad, the idealized version of events told by Schaffa completely framed the way Damaya viewed both orogeny and herself. After Schaffa tells his story, Jemisin writes that Damaya realizes “she is a rogga”. This story has left such an impact on the development of Damaya that when the gaps of the story are filled in, Syenite’s apprehension is made clear by Jemisin: “Roggas have no right to get angry, to want justice, to protect what they love”. The revisionism of history to portray Misalem as a monster has led Damaya to believe for years that she is the villain and that she is not allowed to act on emotions that other people exert every day. 

Historical Revisionism can warp the way a society deals with their demons and influence the way individuals view themselves. If an oppressed group of people is repeatedly told by an authority figure that they are the villain of the story, or that they should be happy in their oppression an impact is inevitably made in the mind of the oppressed.  We treat history as fact so when facts are left out or slightly modified, this usually won’t be questioned and the revised version of the truth will embed itself in our minds. The damage that can be done by small changes is immense, and the ripple effects of revised history in a society are immeasurable. I found it extremely important that two recent novels tackled a similar issue, as it is one of the most damaging things mentally to do to a society but is something rarely at the forefront of the conversation.

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