Publication Date

January 1, 1994

Perspectives Section

Letters to the Editor

History Becomes “Heritage” in Race Question

White Professors, Black History” (Perspectives, September 1993, page 1) attests passions that embroil many American historians and students. No wonder, when de facto segregation and racial stigma prevail four generations past slavery. Each contributor wrote from both head and heart. But three crucial points were missed or muffled.

1. Historians are always outsiders. Wherever located, in Asante’s term, historians are unavoidably alien to the realm they study and teach. The past is a foreign country, and must be seen as such; any present reading both violates and amplifies views held then. We like to celebrate continuity, but past and present are arguably less alike than are “black” and “white” subcultures today. Empathy may make African Americans less qualified to teach African American history: a past fancied as ancestral is bound to get reshaped by enforced fondness.

2. “Black” and “white” categories pervert history teaching. The complex syntheses of our past are ill-served by racially focused courses. We are shaped less by having been African or European than by their convergence on this continent. We descendants are more mixed than most want to know. We are all black, we are all white, and blind to what makes us one.

We remain blind because racial stigmas dichotomize white and black to a degree unknown in, say, the Caribbean, where from 1956 to 1971 I worked for the University of the West Indies. In these small, steeply stratified societies, whites were hegemonic minorities and Eurocentric bias pervasive. But manifold contacts along a racial continuum made the exclusivist Marcus Garvey less congenial than the cosmopolitan C. L. R. James. Afro-Caribbeans rarely denied being also “European” in culture if not in race. Commingling was too evident to gainsay, even in the 1960s when Black Power followed Ras Tafari in stressing African roots.

The “white” racial roots of many African Americans, the “black” antecedents of many Euroamericans, and the creolized culture of all are well attested. Our bitterly divisive past also made us indissolubly one. Each of us is white and black in ways we hardly realize. These are not faced in African American courses—what Fleming rightly terms a “separate and substandard shadow of the real thing”—swayed to assign praise or blame.

3. History and heritage are disparate perspectives. Nobile’s conflicts stemmed from mutual misunderstanding of the nature of history. His students sought not history but heritage sanctioned by history; he hoped his history could embrace heritage, and so he, like they, blurred the distinction.

Nobile to the contrary, Afrocentrist claims are unknowable and unteachable for whites, and are so meant. Students rightly surmised whites would inherently reject an Afrocentricity that was not history but doctrine. But so was Nobile’s counter that slaves showed “collective heroism” in preserving their humanity. Maybe Nobile was not trusted because, in eliding history and heritage, he too bent the past to present agendas.

History and heritage alike apprehend the past. But what they find and transmit, and why, are quite different. History tells all who listen what supposedly happened, suggesting how things came to be as they are. Heritage passes on exclusive myths of origin and continuity, endowing a select group with power and prestige.

History is constrained by specific rules of inquiry and discourse. Historians know they can never shed bias, but they are bound to try. As validity rests on open scrutiny, others can inspect their sources. Their conclusions can be verified or refuted.

Heritage is not like this at all. It seeks a past that will unify adherents and promote joint aims. Its goal is not shared knowledge but self-esteem. Knowing Cleopatra was black makes one feel good, in Jordan’s phrase. But we may not question that she was actually black or what this means—or why it matters. Much “history” penned to flatter patrons or promote patriotism is now better described as heritage.

Heritage is immune to criticism because it is not erudition but catechism; not what is but what ought to be true. What counts is utility. To Finnish folklorists the Kalevala, though “a clear counterfeit,” was a sacred national tract; to fault it was “a sin against the Holy Ghost.” Heritage demands uncritical endorsement and precludes dissent. Bonding within and exclusion beyond the group stem not from reason but from feeling.

Heritage demands faith in a mystique exclusive to devotees. It need not, indeed cannot, be proven to outsiders, whom it is meant to mystify or offend. To this end, heritage deploys facts not only unprovable but often demonstrably wrong. Were they not wrong, outsiders could share them. Hence heritage thrives on empirical error.

Out of some legendary kernel, suggests Edward Said in Beginnings, each corporate group harvests a crop of delusory faiths, nutritive not despite but owing to their defective nature. Heritage underlies a “mountain of false information” that sustains all societies. Inaccurate and misleading beliefs are more than compensated by the bonding that such a legacy confers and by the barriers it erects against others.

Sharing misinformation excludes those whose own heritage encodes different catechisms. “Correct” knowledge could not so serve, because it is open to all. What is generally accessible cannot become a criterion of exclusion; only “false” knowledge can do this. Hence heritage mandates misreadings of history. While history seeks to minimize biased distortions, heritage aims to maximize them.

The heritage prized by Nobile’s students and by Asante has many European precursors. “Getting its history wrong is part of being a nation” was Renan’s dictum to the French. English Whig historians viewed muddled thinking as a national virtue. “‘Wrong’ history was one of our assets,” exulted Butterfield. “Precisely because they did not know the Middle Ages, the historians … gave the seventeenth century just the type of anachronism that it required.” Useful because mistaken, their version of the past became a cornerstone of the national heritage.

In Ireland, the received version of national history is seen by Brendan Bradshaw as “a beneficial legacy, its wrongness notwithstanding.” Revisionists exposing myths must not deprive Irish history of “heroic figures struggling for national liberation.” In Greece the hoary myth of underground schools that kept Greek culture alive under Ottoman oppressors remains a national credo though known to be false. When a 1960s schoolteacher was pilloried for questioning it, Richard Clogg reports the response that “even if the krypha skholeia was a myth, nonetheless it should still continue to be propagated for such myths were an essential element in the national identity.”

Heritage like history is learned. But it is not learned in the same way. Heritage requires uncritical acceptance of chosen sources. History requires critical reading of all sources, as Samuel Wineburg recently noted (Perspectives, March 1992, page 19). Historians must insist on this distinction, above all when heritage seeks to shelter under a historical umbrella.

David Lowenthal
Professor Emeritus
University College London

In “Telling the Story: The Media, the Public, and American History” (Perspectives, October 1993, page 1) about the conference organized by the New England Foundation for the Humanities last spring, Daniel J. Walkowitz writes, “A rigid demarcation between the crafts of the historian and the filmmaker was most vividly articulated by the screenwriter and producer . … ‘True history’ [sic] … , she argued, demanded what she called ‘responsible imagining,’ a work ethic that she defended as the property of media rather than history.”

They say no drama can be better than its “heavy,” so I suppose I should be honored to be thus cast in the perhaps indispensable role of the “media” type who wants to keep historians out of the film business. However, Walkowitz has misconstrued my position. In making historical films like The Killing Floor (a dramatic film on labor and Afro-American history that was shown at the conference), I have always worked closely with historians. I have found this collaboration to be most productive when historians understand and accept the premises of the filmmaking art, for it is only then that they can actively enter into the process as cocreators rather than merely as verifiers and critics.

Perhaps it was the word imagining that threw Walkowitz off. By its nature, film brings an extraordinary concreteness of sensuous and emotional detail to the world, events, and characters it portrays, inevitably going beyond that which can be known through empirical evidence. In calling for an ethic of “responsible imagining,” I was not seeking to shut historians out of the creative process but rather attempting to articulate the need for them to enter more deeply into it on its own terms, as imaginative collaborators, reaching together with filmmakers toward a shared ethic of our work together. And when historians enter into this process of helping to create “stories for various publics with multiple voices that speak to the varieties of American experience,” they may well find that what often stands in the way of telling such stories is not so much the obduracy of the filmmakers who must “catch up with the historiography of the last thirty years” as it is the world in which filmmakers must work, a world in which great sums of financing must be raised from sources whose interest does not always lie in telling all the stories historians know. To tell these stories, filmmakers need historians not only as collaborators, but also as active public allies.

Elsa Rassbach