PHILADELPHIA — Even attempts at corporate carelessness took advantage, as nearly 3,000 academics gathered over the weekend for the annual meeting of the American Historical Society.
At a table in a crowded book exhibition, from the seriously inspiring (“Study the past to understand the present”) to the slightly frustrating (“Historians: Watch Your Back!”).
The latter may seem inadvertent, and not just because the spread of legislation restricting teaching on race, gender, and other “divisive concepts” has made many educators feel like they have a target on their backs. In recent months, the association has also been shaken by its own divisive notions, including what originally constituted “good history.”
In August, James H. Sweet, president of the association, one of the leading historians of the African diaspora at the University of Wisconsin, wrote in the association’s journal, “Is History History?”, complaining of a “trend for the present.” and the disturbing politicization of scholarship.
Studies of pre-modern history are shrinking, Sweet writes, and scholars of all ages are increasingly questioning whether studies that don’t focus on “contemporary social justice issues” like race, gender, and capitalism really matter. It promoted “political attention facilitated by social and other media”, a “predictable sameness” that overlooked the messiness and complexity of the past.
And in the public realm, Sweet (citing the New York Times’ 1619 Project, the recent film “The Woman King” and the Supreme Court opinion that overturned Roe v. Wade), too many people, both right and left, have historically “a argued that he regarded it as “proving”. Grab the bag.”
“We suffer from an overabundance of history, not as a method or analysis of analysis, but as anachronistic data points for the articulation of competing politics,” he wrote.
The column caused a firestorm that spread along racial and generational fault lines. In a radically shrinking job market, many young historians referred to low-paying side jobs have seen the non-communicative grievances of the privileged. And for many Black scholars, it was an attack on the inherently political traditions of Black research.
Sweet, who is white, issued a statement within days calling the column “incompetent” and apologizing for “harming” the profession and “alienating some of my Black colleagues and friends”, but she did not withdraw her arguments.
While few grassroots historians were eager to get on the record, the ongoing debate hung above the meeting.
“I think he designed it as a jerk,” Earl Lewis, former president of the Mellon Foundation, said Thursday after an opening night panel of five leading scientists to address the debate. “But some people felt it like a knife.”
Sweet was seated near the back of the room during the panel, which was advertised under the covert title “The Past, Present, and Studies of Historians.” She then said that she had both her column and her apology on hand. But if she had to do it again, she said, “I’d probably soften my style.”
Thursday’s panel was short on pointed disagreements and long on juxtapositions and questions, including a big one: Are the traditional methodologies lauded by Sweet an effective tool of justice and truth, or are they too immersed in their own racist past?
Since its beginnings in the 19th century, the history profession (including its own field) has been subjugated by empire, colonialism, and “no apologies for these movements,” says Carol Symes, professor of medieval studies at the University of Illinois.
Rashauna Johnson, a 19th-century African diaspora historian at the University of Chicago, said Black history emerged “in response” to racist dominant narratives in academia and the wider world.
Historians of black people, “to tell different stories that are not rooted in anti-Black histories,” he said, “had to deal with the case of justice by default, and they felt that the cause of justice was deeply connected to the work of history.”
Herman Bennett, a historian of the Latin American and African diaspora at the CUNY Alumni Center, agreed with Johnson and also posed a question about Sweet’s questions: “Why now?”
He said disciplines such as history have long been “exclusive” and treat all parts of humanity as if they had no history. He said the field of black history had to develop techniques to recover the stories of those who left little written records.
But today, Bennet said, as the call for racial justice reshapes the country, “such concerns, such visions, have suddenly become questionable.”
There was little reference to the pervasive horror that the field (as one participant in another session put it) ‘constricts if not collapsed’. But Jane Kamensky, the early American historian at Harvard, was outspoken at the lightning bolt of closing comments. “We need to talk about money,” she said.
“Ford and Mellon are out of the history business,” he continued, citing two mega-foundations that have recently terminated or reduced support for graduate education and higher education in general, as part of a broader refocus on social justice. “If the support isn’t going to come from there, it certainly won’t come from the state legislatures.”
Kamensky also advocated the value of “slow, patient, potentially useless” research. “We all want vaccines,” he said. “We don’t want to sit in the trenches for 30 years looking at mRNA. But if you don’t spend 30 years looking at mRNA, you won’t have a vaccine.”
“How can we take advantage of the acute urgency of the moment,” he asked, “without getting carried away by it?”
This urgency was felt in various hearings on “divisive notions” legislation proposed or passed in at least three dozen states. At one panel, K-12 educators and advocates spoke of such law-defying strategies, which the AHA, along with more than 150 other groups, denounced as threats to “free and open exchange.”
It seemed very far from the discussion of presentism. But after the panel, Erin Greenwald, a historian on Louisiana’s social science standards review committee, said historians have to do more to connect with the public.
“We are living in the present,” he said. “One way to engage students is to get them to think about the past in a way that helps them understand what happened.”
On Friday night, Sweet delivered his presidential address in front of a standing crowd entitled “The Slave Trade as a Corporate Crime Conspiracy from the Calabar Massacre to the BLM, 1767–2022.”
For over an hour, it traced the story of the 18th-century patriarch Ambrose Lace of a Liverpool slave-trading family who consolidated their dominance over rival traders in a “gang-style” massacre of 400 people in present-day Nigeria. . Lace evaded charges in Britain, and over time her family cleared their past, in part by selectively providing documents to historians.
In 2014, the family-owned legal services company merged with another company to create another company that uses his initials: BLM.
“It’s hard to find a more mature target for compensation,” Sweet said.
Sweet then turned the discussion of the present tense into “elephant in the room.” How to fix historical wrongs is an important question today, she said. And historians should offer context, not answers, by giving “a complete interpretation of the past as our sources permit.”
History is “a big tent,” he said. But it has encouraged historians to “bend over the methodological approaches of our discipline”. If not, “we risk replacing one set of myths and lies with another,” he said.
Later, in the lobby (and on Twitter), there was unassuming chatter about “doubling down” and whether Sweet’s closing plea to Black scientist WEB DuBois was “shameful.”
And there was disagreement as to whether a truly open discussion really took place or could have been.
“People are sometimes afraid to speak up, even on things they know to be historically true, because they don’t want to be on the wrong side in the end,” said Johann Neem, a 19th-century education historian at Western Washington University.
University of Chicago academic Johnson took a cautiously optimistic note about how the debate was handled.
“Not to belittle what’s happened before,” he said, “but I think it’s an important model for being able to embrace contentious, difficult conversations in the hope that we can really figure out how to become better historians.”