Robin Kirk co-directs the Duke Human Rights Center at the Franklin Humanities Institute at Duke University.
In George Orwell’s novel “1984,” the luckless Winston Smith labors in a Ministry of Truth office where he “re-creates” the past by removing or changing historical documents to reflect Big Brother’s political demands.
Winston doesn’t know whether he’s changing a fact or a fallacy another worker has already introduced. He erases some people entirely after the Party executes them.
I couldn’t help but think of Smith’s grim legacy recently. Last month, I requested from the North Carolina State Archives a photograph of the first inmate executed by lethal gas. I’d first seen Allen Foster’s mug shot in a 2004 edition of the state’s authorized history journal and wanted a high-resolution copy.
But the Archives – the state agency in charge of safeguarding the primary sources of our history – refused my request….
I requested the photo as part of work I was doing on a national exhibit on mass incarceration, coordinated by the Humanities Action Lab at New York’s New School. Along with 20 other universities, 16 Duke students, a colleague and I were preparing our contribution, a history of the death penalty in North Carolina.