As Historians Gather, No Truce in the History Wars

PHILADELPHIA — As nearly 3,000 scholars gathered over the weekend for the annual meeting of the American Historical Association, even the attempts at institutional lightheartedness carried an edge.

On a table in the crowded book exhibition, there was an invitation to vote for a slogan to be emblazoned on future swag, with candidates ranging from the earnestly inspirational (“Study the past to understand the present”) to the slightly unnerving (“Historians: Look Out Behind You!”).

That last one might have seemed unintentionally on the nose, and not just because the spread of legislation restricting teaching on race, gender and other “divisive concepts” has left many educators feeling like they have a target on their backs. In recent months, the association has also been roiled by its own divisive concepts — including what constitutes “good history” to begin with.

Controversy exploded in August, when the association’s president, James H. Sweet, a leading historian of the African diaspora at the University of Wisconsin, published a column in its magazine called “Is History History?,” which lamented a “trend toward presentism” and a troubling politicization of scholarship.

The study of pre-modern history, Sweet wrote, is shrinking, while scholars of all periods increasingly question whether work that doesn’t focus on “contemporary social justice issues” like race, gender and capitalism really matters. “The allure of political relevance, facilitated by social and other media,” he argued, has encouraged “a predictable sameness” that misses the messiness and complexity of the past.

And in the public realm, Sweet (citing the New York Times’s 1619 Project, the recent movie “The Woman King” and the Supreme Court opinion overturning Roe v. Wade) argued that too many on both left and right treat history as “an evidentiary grab bag.”

“We suffer from an overabundance of history,” he wrote, “not as a method of or analysis, but as anachronistic data points for the articulation of competing politics.”

A column last summer by James Sweet, the group’s president, criticizing what he saw as a dangerous tilt toward “presentism” has stirred contentious debate among historians.Credit…Michelle Gustafson for The New York Times

The column provoked a firestorm, which spread along racial and generational fault lines. Many younger historians, consigned to poorly paid adjunct work in a radically shrinking job market, saw the out-of-touch complaints of the privileged. And for many Black scholars, it was an attack on the inherently political traditions of Black studies.

Within days, Sweet, who is white, posted a statement calling the column “clumsy” and apologizing for causing “damage” to the profession and for “alienating some of my Black colleagues and friends,” but did not retract his arguments.

The continuing fracas hung over the gathering, even if few rank-and-file historians were eager to talk about it on the record.

“I think he intended it as a prick,” Earl Lewis, a former president of the Mellon Foundation, said on Thursday, after an opening-night panel of five prominent scholars organized to address the controversy. “But some folks felt it as a stab.”

Sweet sat near the back of the room during the panel, which was advertised under the anodyne title “The Past, the Present and the Work of Historians.” Afterward, he said that he stood by both his column and his apology. But if he had to do it over, he said, “I would probably tamp down my tone.”

Thursday’s panel was short on pointed disagreement, and long on juxtapositions and questions, including a big one: Are the traditional methodologies extolled by Sweet an effective tool of justice and truth, or are they too enmeshed in their own racist past?

Carol Symes, an associate professor of medieval studies at the University of Illinois, said that since its inception in the 19th-century, the historical profession (including her own field) had often done “the work of injustice,” bolstering empire, colonization and subjugation with “apologetics for those movements.”

Rashauna Johnson, a historian of the 19th-century African diaspora at the University of Chicago, said that Black history had arisen “in response to” racist dominant narratives, in the academy and the wider world.

“To tell different stories, that aren’t rooted in histories of anti-Blackness,” she said, historians of Black people “have had to by default take up the cause of justice, and think of the cause of justice as deeply tied to the work of history.”

Herman Bennett, a historian of Latin America and the African diaspora at the CUNY Graduate Center, agreed with Johnson, and also posed a question about Sweet’s questions: “Why now?”

Disciplines like history, he said, have long been “exclusionary,” treating whole swathes of humanity as having no history. The field of Black history, he said, has had to develop techniques for recovering the stories of those who left few written records.

But today, Bennet said, when the call for racial justice is reshaping the country, “these kinds of concerns, these kinds of imaginings, are suddenly questionable.”

From left, the historians Rashauna Johnson, Jane Kamensky and Herman Bennett. Bennett said the discipline of history had long been “exclusionary,” treating swathes of people as if they had no history. Credit…Michelle Gustafson for The New York Times

There was little reference to the widespread dismay that the field was (as a participant at another session put it) “in contraction, if not collapse.” But during a lightning round of closing comments, Jane Kamensky, a historian of early America at Harvard, was blunt. “We need to talk about money,” she said.

“Ford and Mellon have gotten out of the history business,” she continued, referring to the two mega-foundations, which have recently ended or reduced support for graduate study and higher education generally, as part of a broader refocusing on social justice. “If the support isn’t going to come from there, it certainly isn’t going to come from state legislatures.”

Kamensky also defended the value of “slow, patient, potentially useless” research. “We all want the vaccine,” she said. “We don’t want to just sit in the trenches looking at mRNA for 30 years. But if you don’t spend 30 years looking at mRNA, you don’t have the vaccine.”

“How do we leverage the fierce urgency of now,” she asked, “without being captured by it?”

That urgency was felt at various sessions on “divisive concepts” legislation, which has been proposed or passed in at least three dozen states. At one panel, K-12 educators and advocates talked about strategies for challenging such laws, which the A.H.A. has joined with more than 150 other groups in condemning as threats to “free and open exchange.”

It seemed a long way from the presentism debate. But after the panel, Erin Greenwald, a historian on the recent committee to revise Louisiana’s social studies standards, said historians had an obligation to do more to connect with the public.

“We live in the present,” she said. “One way of getting students engaged is having them reflect on the past in a way that helps them understand what’s happening.”

On Friday night, Sweet delivered his presidential address, titled “Slave Trading as a Corporate Criminal Conspiracy, from the Calabar Massacre to BLM, 1767–2022,” in front of a standing-room crowd.

Over an hour, he traced the story of a slave-trading family from Liverpool whose 18th-century patriarch, Ambrose Lace, had cemented his dominance over rival traders by carrying out a “gangland-style” massacre of 400 people in present-day Nigeria. Lace dodged criminal charges in Britain, and over time his family whitewashed their history, in part by selectively providing documents to historians.

In 2014, the family-founded legal services firm merged with another firm to form another carrying a name using their combined initials: BLM.

“It would be hard,” Sweet said, “to think of a riper target for reparations.”

Sweet then turned to the “elephant in the room,” the debate over presentism. How to repair historical wrongs, he said, is an important present-day question. And historians should offer not answers but context, giving “as full a rendering of the past as our sources allow.”

History, he said, “is a big tent.” But he urged historians to “lean into the methodological approaches of our discipline.” If not, he said, “we risk replacing one set of myths and lies with another.”

Afterward, in the lobby (and on Twitter), there was hushed chatter about “doubling down,” and whether Sweet’s closing invocation of the Black scholar W.E.B. DuBois was “cringey.”

And there was disagreement about whether genuinely open debate was really happening — or could happen.

“People are scared to speak honestly sometimes, even what they know to be historically true, because they don’t want to end up on the wrong side,” Johann Neem, a historian of 19th-century education at Western Washington University, said.

Johnson, the University of Chicago scholar, sounded a cautiously optimistic note on how the controversy had been handled.

“Not to minimize what has come before,” she said, “but I do think it does model something important about being able to embrace contentious, difficult conversations, in the hopes we can really figure out how to be better historians.”

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