Responses to “Is History History?”
AHA president James H. Sweet’s September column for Perspectives on History, “Is History History? Identity Politics and the Teleologies of the Present,” generated controversy and discussion in venues ranging from social media to the op-ed pages of major newspapers and the academic press. Perspectives has invited two critics of the piece, Malcolm Foley and Priya Satia, to respond.
I’m glad that James H. Sweet wrote this column. It did what he intended it to do: it opened a particular conversation about how we “do” history, something that Sweet, in his apology, noted as his initial wish. There is much to reflect on from his piece, whether it is the continuing redefinition of “identity politics” away from its radical coining or its singling out of The 1619 Project as a point of critique. I’d like to widen the conversation, however, and make a suggestion about the relationship between history and politics—namely, that the relationship is a necessary one, and if we flee from it, we do our students and our world a disservice.
As someone who initially intended to do theological work about the influence of early Greek theologians on the Reformation theologian John Calvin, I had very little intention, when I embarked on the journey to become a historian, of uttering the words of the previous sentence. As I learned and imbibed historiographical methods, my own understanding of human activity continued to expand. I became aware of the ways in which religion, economics, and politics shape human and institutional action and change. But one thing that I found most interesting is that there is an idea that binds historians and theologians together: everyone is one, but not everyone is a good one. This also leads to significant academic anxiety: Wherein lies what makes us special? Is it in our language? Our guild is one that relies not on jargon but rather on intelligibility. Is it in our content? Who has the right to police what is or is not the historian’s content? As Norman Cantor and Richard Schneider said in their framing of the field for undergraduate students, “What a historian does is obtain information about the past and then make judgments about the significance, meaning, importance, and relevance of these bits of information.” The field is lively because we have so many people looking at the past while asking different questions. These historians also make different judgments. But central to the work is the understanding that the past matters today, a truth that every thinking human being assumes and regularly acts in light of. Yet this is also fundamentally a political act, insofar as politics are understood to be the exercise of power by groups and individuals. As Sweet stated, bad history does indeed yield bad politics. The opposite, however, is also true: just history yields just politics.
As the field has expanded, so have the questions.
This is, of course, distinguishable from doing history to justify current political stances and agendas. But the desire to live well is not an agenda; it is something common to the human experience and something we each bring to everything we do. We all ask particular questions and focus on particular data because of what we think is important. A field historically populated by mostly white men writing histories of white male hegemony asked particular questions and was open to particular conclusions. As the field has expanded, so have the questions. An insight that has stuck in my mind from the work of women’s historians such as Catherine Brekus is that history is as much about things staying the same as it is about change. Said another way, when we note that oppressive and exploitative conditions continue, a state of affairs that we only become aware of when we investigate the lives of the exploited and oppressed, we must ask the question, Why do those conditions persist as long as they do? These are some of the questions I ask as a historian of lynching and Christianity and as a Black man. Who are the ignored voices? In periods of apparent darkness, where are the glimmers of light? When Sweet approvingly spoke of Stephen Breyer’s recognition that “historians engage in research methods . . . incompatible with solving modern-day legal, political, or economic questions,” he spoke of a conception of historians and their craft that is unnecessarily narrow. Modern-day legal, political, and economic questions and the conversations that surround them are best treated by good history rather than no history. Abusus non tollit usum—abuse does not invalidate use.
This returns me to the claim that I made at the beginning of this piece: that history and politics are deeply interwoven. If history is the telling of human stories, not merely the reporting of their stories but an articulation of their meaning, then we as human beings have much to learn from it about ourselves and about our fellow human beings. Most importantly, however, it gives us more resources to love one another well. My historical work is meant not merely to ask interesting questions and get true answers; those elements are incidental. My emphasis switched to racial violence because I saw trends and norms that persisted over time and that led to death. I wanted to study Calvin and the Greek Church Fathers because they were interesting. I studied the brutalities of racialized lynching because my not-so-distant ancestors fled Mississippi pursued by a lynch mob and because the threat of racial violence has never had time to fade from the Black historical, political, and ethical imagination. It is my love of humanity, but especially my love of my Black brothers and sisters, that encourages me to pursue work that enriches their lives. That is no slight against the historians of early modern China, the Roman Empire, or ancient Mesopotamia. It is to make the point that as historians, we are primarily concerned with people in all their complexity, and in our orientation toward them, we regard them not merely as subjects to be studied and experimented on with our hypotheses but as people to be loved and to be justly interacted with.
History is the telling of human stories, not merely the reporting of their stories but an articulation of their meaning.
This, to me, strikes at the core of the anxiety that Sweet alluded to throughout his piece. The issue was his attempt to restrict the work, rather than an invitation to collaborate in it. I am of the opinion that there is no conversation in which a good historian ought to feel unwelcome. Why? Because a good historian knows, when they look at the world around them, that there are very few truly new questions. The author of the biblical book of Ecclesiastes was right in his introductory lament: what has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. It is perhaps this point that communicates history’s value rather than undermining it or threatening its integrity. Historians have the unique opportunity to show, through rigorous analysis and argument, how similar or how different our past is from our present rather than assume, a priori, continuity or discontinuity. This openness, humility, and willingness to “follow the sources where they lead,” as many are wont to say, ought to be an example to our fellow academics and an example to the academy of what the liberal arts are all about: the moral exercise of freedom. We are indeed free to ask whatever questions we want, but I believe that we will find that the questions our students and our world will find most compelling are the questions and answers that actually set them free. We can observe and study societies and civilizations unlike our own, and instead of assuming superiority or inferiority, we assume humanity and thus seek not to dominate and to exploit but to learn.
As much as academic careers can be built on infighting, we daily have the opportunity to bear witness to a different world of possibility: one where historians, sociologists, political theorists, scholars of religion, and others can compare notes and enrich one another’s work without the nagging desires to police boundaries. Granted, this may be difficult in the political economy that suffuses current colleges and universities, but the historian knows that those systems are not entirely self-perpetuating; they depend on our complicity. Perhaps it is the subtle resistance against the alienation of our colleagues that is the concrete act of love that we can engage in today. Perhaps that is one way the work of history can be conceived of as the work of love.
My email to the AHA about president James H. Sweet’s damaging column elicited an invitation to respond. I felt it a duty to accept, as someone in a secure position and author of a recent history of the discipline’s political engagement. But rather than honored, I felt exhaustion at having to explain the harm of Sweet’s condescending portrayal of African Americans’ understanding of history and of his attempt, from his influential office, to delegitimize scholarship on essential topics like race, gender, and capitalism (in a manner that has now drawn the approval of white supremacists).
Sitting down to write, I found relief in T. J. Tallie’s (Univ. of San Diego) protest, upon being asked to respond to Sweet, against the constant demand that marginalized peoples offer up free labor to defend their own humanity. The appropriate course, he explains, was a retraction and apology. Here, in solidarity, I offer my free labor amplifying Tallie’s demand. [As I’ve finished drafting this, I’ve learned that Sweet has issued an apology (albeit reaffirming his complaint about “presentism”) and that I will receive Perspectives’ standard $100 honorarium for this essay.]
Retraction is appropriate because the essay’s flaws are pervasive and obvious. It chastises the discipline for producing scholarship that fails to respect the “values and mores of people in their own times” without offering a single piece of evidence. Who are these historians who have betrayed their disciplinary duty? In a column subject to normal vetting, editors would immediately have cried “straw man.”
Who are these historians who have betrayed their disciplinary duty?
The essay blames historians’ increasing focus on the very recent past on a culture of “presentism,” though we know (partly through the AHA) that the decimation of programs and jobs in premodern periods is shaped by structural factors. The devaluation of the humanities—partly because marginalized people are more visible among them as subjects and practitioners—and the corporate values that hold American higher education hostage render history programs and scholars precarious throughout the academy.
Lynn Hunt’s 2002 complaint to which Sweet tethers his own was about a different problem—the feeling of moral superiority over earlier times that had led to a fetishization of “modernity,” undermining our openness to possible futures. As Hunt recognized, such presentism (a slippery term) is integral to “modern Western historical consciousness.” Indeed, it was at the core of “the Whig interpretation of history,” rooted in the Enlightenment understanding of history as a source of moral lessons for the elites who presumed to make history in the present. “History is the school of statesmanship,” J. R. Seeley declared. Such unapologetic presentism—applied as much to the study of ancient as recent history—gave historians outsize influence in the making of Western empire.
Hunt’s warning came as whiggish narratives of Western empire were again legitimizing American and British invasions. It echoed social historians’ earlier admonishments about the “enormous condescension” of the progress narrative of history. E. P. Thompson and other New Left scholars had turned to history from below hoping that “lost causes” of the past might yield insights for their time. This was a different kind of presentism, rooted in an awareness of how earlier historians had served elite political agendas and of how the (contingently produced) past lives on in the present, so that the way we study and memorialize it makes different kinds of futures possible.
Sweet’s insistence that “history is not a heuristic tool for the articulation of an ideal imagined future” negates this understanding of history’s purpose; in exhorting us not to project “today’s” antiracism on the past, he adopts the moral superiority toward the past that Hunt cautions against. New Left scholarship challenging the liberal status quo was disparaged as presentist by old-guard historians in the grip of (presentist) Cold War anxieties, as Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins has explained. Sweet renews a pattern of worry recurring in AHA publications since the 1930s—even as historians are also accused of abdicating their responsibility to the public.
Sweet attacks scholarly work on “race, gender, sexuality, nationalism, capitalism” as driven by “contemporary social justice issues.” The mind boggles at having to remind a fellow historian that gender and sexuality existed in the ancient world; race was a concept in the early modern world; when John Stuart Mill said different government styles suited different races, and Indian rebels in 1857 spelled out their fury at the everyday humiliation of British racism, race was their contemporary social justice issue.
When we listen only to the voices of the powerful in the past, it appears more of a foreign country than it was. That foreignness was partly a response to resistance by the less powerful, whose values and mores were at times more akin to ours in the very eras whose radical alterity we are asked to respect. The resonance of their values is not the result of scholars’ presentism but evidence of the common humanity that is the necessary premise of historical study. If there is change over time, there is also continuity and loss. People of the past were like us and not like us. As Dipesh Chakrabarty explains, humans from any period “are always in some sense our contemporaries,” else they would seem unintelligible to us. Writing history “must implicitly assume . . . a disjuncture of the present with itself.” Studying race or gender is not an effort to make the past look like the present in a way that forecloses future change, but an effort to recover values that have been silenced or realities that have been whitewashed so that we might envision alternative futures.
When has American history not been political?
To Sweet, The 1619 Project, the only “presentist” book he names, fails as history because it views the past “through the prism of contemporary racial identity.” It is baffling that a journalistic effort stands in for historical scholarship here. Moreover, this kind of popular history is hardly new. What’s new is its pushback against entrenched narratives about the founding fathers and the place of slavery in American history. Why is a popular history that empowers historically marginalized people and centers slavery a more concerning betrayal of the discipline than the whitewashed nationalist myths (propped up by earlier historians) that marginalized them? Would we be better off without such contestation? When has American history, popular and scholarly, not been political?
Sweet is “troubled” about African Americans making pilgrimages to a slave-trading port that mostly sent slaves to the Caribbean and Brazil, not North America. Sure, we should not lose sight of the trade’s broader Atlantic dimensions, but when have popular historical pilgrimages been about accuracy rather than belonging and connection? Why is such inaccuracy an urgent problem when committed by Black Americans, but not by Americans who visit places like Ellis Island and Plymouth without any personal connection to them? Did I make a historical faux pas when, as a child of immigrants, I found meaning at Ellis Island, though my parents actually landed in Chicago? As Trouillot reminds us, professional historians’ work flows into a vast lake of historical production to which politicians, “popular historians,” museums, novels, TV, films, activists, and innumerable members of the public contribute. Much of that lake is what we would call bad history. As custodians of the past, we must challenge it but cannot presume to control it. But for Sweet, we are damned either way. Historians engaged in The 1619 Project on all sides (as Sweet himself is) but thus wrongly lent it “historical legitimacy.”
The other example of presentism Sweet invokes is conservative Supreme Court justices’ recent abuse of history in rulings on gun control and abortion. It is a mystery why their bad history reflects on the discipline—Sweet knows that professional historians (including me) filed briefs countering it. We even warned that history is a red herring in these cases. As David Whitford comments online below Sweet’s essay, “The criticism . . . of the SC’s misuse of history is . . . to somehow chastise the very historians who have amply demonstrated [that] misuse. . . . Sweet claims with no evidence that this is the result of ‘presentism’ among historians.” Sweet disturbingly equates the “presentism” of Black Americans inspired by The 1619 Project and that of conservatives seeking “power to . . . harm others,” Tallie explains.
As historians, we endeavor to understand the past on its own terms and we may find our work relevant to political questions. Some historians speak more about their work’s contemporary relevance than others, but all their work is shaped by their place and time, as future students of history will discern in their historiography papers—a foundational exercise premised on our awareness that the present inevitably shapes our questions, who gets to ask them, the sources available, and the interpretations we offer.
Sweet has contributed to public denigration of the discipline in a time of rampant, politically motivated questioning of humanistic expertise and resource crisis for the discipline. His complaint about a preoccupation with “contemporary social justice issues” offers fuel to attacks on the teaching of crucial subjects like race and slavery. To this injury he adds the insult of leaping into a serious subject without regard for the important work so many have done, in syllabi, essays, and books (including the AHA’s carefully considered advocacy and the AHR’s excellent History Unclassified series), on the relationship between scholarly history and the present. The president of the AHA should model the value of careful study over a hot take.
Malcolm Foley is special adviser to the president for equity and campus engagement at Baylor University and director of the Black Church Studies Program at Truett Seminary. He tweets @MalcolmBFoley.
Priya Satia is professor of history and Raymond A. Spruance Professor of International History at Stanford University. Her most recent book is Time’s Monster: How History Makes History (Belknap Press, 2020).
Tags: From the President
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