Is History History?

PG trigger warning: PG will include excerpts from the original article that is the subject of this post.

If you go to the OP, you will see that the original piece now has a groveling apology from the author, who evidently is the President of the American Historical Association, apologizing for “the harm that it has caused” and for the OP foreclosing “this conversation for many members, causing harm to colleagues, the discipline, and the Association.” Further down the introductory apology, the author characterizes the piece as “my ham-fisted attempt at provocation” and invites anyone who would like an additional apology to contact him directly.

The author of the OP ends his apology by writing:

“I sincerely regret the way I have alienated some of my Black colleagues and friends. I am deeply sorry. In my clumsy efforts to draw attention to methodological flaws in teleological presentism, I left the impression that questions posed from absence, grief, memory, and resilience somehow matter less than those posed from positions of power. This absolutely is not true. It wasn’t my intention to leave that impression, but my provocation completely missed the mark.

Once again, I apologize for the damage I have caused to my fellow historians, the discipline, and the AHA. I hope to redeem myself in future conversations with you all. I’m listening and learning.”

From the original pre-groveling article published in Perspectives on History, published by the American Historical Association:

Twenty years ago, in these pages, Lynn Hunt argued “against presentism.” She lamented historians’ declining interest in topics prior to the 20th century, as well as our increasing tendency to interpret the past through the lens of the present. Hunt warned that this rising presentism threatened to “put us out of business as historians.” If history was little more than “short-term . . . identity politics defined by present concerns,” wouldn’t students be better served by taking degrees in sociology, political science, or ethnic studies instead?

The discipline did not heed Hunt’s warning. From 2003 to 2013, the number of PhDs awarded to students working on topics post-1800, across all fields, rose 18 percent. Meanwhile, those working on pre-1800 topics declined by 4 percent. During this time, the Wall Street meltdown was followed by plummeting undergraduate enrollments in history courses and increased professional interest in the history of contemporary socioeconomic topics. Then came Obama, and Twitter, and Trump. As the discipline has become more focused on the 20th and 21st centuries, historical analyses are contained within an increasingly constrained temporality. Our interpretations of the recent past collapse into the familiar terms of contemporary debates, leaving little room for the innovative, counterintuitive interpretations.

This trend toward presentism is not confined to historians of the recent past; the entire discipline is lurching in this direction, including a shrinking minority working in premodern fields. If we don’t read the past through the prism of contemporary social justice issues—race, gender, sexuality, nationalism, capitalism—are we doing history that matters? This new history often ignores the values and mores of people in their own times, as well as change over time, neutralizing the expertise that separates historians from those in other disciplines. The allure of political relevance, facilitated by social and other media, encourages a predictable sameness of the present in the past. This sameness is ahistorical, a proposition that might be acceptable if it produced positive political results. But it doesn’t.

In many places, history suffuses everyday life as presentism; America is no exception. We suffer from an overabundance of history, not as method or analysis, but as anachronistic data points for the articulation of competing politics. The consequences of this new history are everywhere. I traveled to Ghana for two months this summer to research and write, and my first assignment was a critical response to The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story for a forthcoming forum in the American Historical Review. Whether or not historians believe that there is anything new in the New York Times project created by Nikole Hannah-Jones, The 1619 Project is a best-selling book that sits at the center of current controversies over how to teach American history. As journalism, the project is powerful and effective, but is it history?

This new history often ignores the values and mores of people in their own times.

When I first read the newspaper series that preceded the book, I thought of it as a synthesis of a tradition of Black nationalist historiography dating to the 19th century with Ta-Nehisi Coates’s recent call for reparations. The project spoke to the political moment, but I never thought of it primarily as a work of history. Ironically, it was professional historians’ engagement with the work that seemed to lend it historical legitimacy. Then the Pulitzer Center, in partnership with the Times, developed a secondary school curriculum around the project. Local school boards protested characterizations of Washington, Jefferson, and Madison as unpatriotic owners of “forced labor camps.” Conservative lawmakers decided that if this was the history of slavery being taught in schools, the topic shouldn’t be taught at all. For them, challenging the Founders’ position as timeless tribunes of liberty was “racially divisive.” At each of these junctures, history was a zero-sum game of heroes and villains viewed through the prism of contemporary racial identity. It was not an analysis of people’s ideas in their own time, nor a process of change over time.

In Ghana, I traveled to Elmina for a wedding. A small seaside fishing village, Elmina was home to one of the largest Atlantic slave-trading depots in West Africa. The morning after the wedding, a small group of us met for breakfast at the hotel. As we waited for several members of our party to show up, a group of African Americans began trickling into the breakfast bar. By the time they all gathered, more than a dozen members of the same family—three generations deep—pulled together the restaurant’s tables to dine. Sitting on the table in front of one of the elders was a dog-eared copy of The 1619 Project.

. . . .

Later that afternoon, my family and I toured Elmina Castle alongside several Ghanaians, a Dane, and a Jamaican family. Our guide gave a well-rehearsed tour geared toward African Americans. American influence was everywhere, from memorial plaques to wreaths and flowers left on the floors of the castle’s dungeons. Arguably, Elmina Castle is now as much an African American shrine as a Ghanaian archaeological or historical site. As I reflected on breakfast earlier that morning, I could only imagine the affirmation and bonding experienced by the large African American family—through the memorialization of ancestors lost to slavery at Elmina Castle, but also through the story of African American resilience, redemption, and the demand for reparations in The 1619 Project.

Yet as a historian of Africa and the African diaspora, I am troubled by the historical erasures and narrow politics that these narratives convey. Less than one percent of the Africans passing through Elmina arrived in North America. The vast majority went to Brazil and the Caribbean. Should the guide’s story differ for a tour with no African Americans? Likewise, would The 1619 Project tell a different history if it took into consideration that the shipboard kin of Jamestown’s “20. and odd” Africans also went to Mexico, Jamaica, and Bermuda? These are questions of historical interpretation, but present-day political ones follow: Do efforts to claim a usable African American past reify elements of American hegemony and exceptionalism such narratives aim to dismantle?

The Elmina tour guide claimed that “Ghanaians” sent their “servants” into chattel slavery unknowingly. The guide made no reference to warfare or Indigenous slavery, histories that interrupt assumptions of ancestral connection between modern-day Ghanaians and visitors from the diaspora. Similarly, the forthcoming film The Woman King seems to suggest that Dahomey’s female warriors and King Ghezo fought the European slave trade. In fact, they promoted it. Historically accurate rendering of Asante or Dahomean greed and enslavement apparently contradict modern-day political imperatives.

Hollywood need not adhere to historians’ methods any more than journalists or tour guides, but bad history yields bad politics. The erasure of slave-trading African empires in the name of political unity is uncomfortably like right-wing conservative attempts to erase slavery from school curricula in the United States, also in the name of unity. These interpretations are two sides of the same coin. If history is only those stories from the past that confirm current political positions, all manner of political hacks can claim historical expertise.

This is not history; it is dilettantism.

Too many Americans have become accustomed to the idea of history as an evidentiary grab bag to articulate their political positions, a trend that can be seen in recent US Supreme Court decisions.

. . . .

Professional historians would do well to pay attention to Breyer’s admonition. The present has been creeping up on our discipline for a long time. Doing history with integrity requires us to interpret elements of the past not through the optics of the present but within the worlds of our historical actors. Historical questions often emanate out of present concerns, but the past interrupts, challenges, and contradicts the present in unpredictable ways. History is not a heuristic tool for the articulation of an ideal imagined future. Rather, it is a way to study the messy, uneven process of change over time. When we foreshorten or shape history to justify rather than inform contemporary political positions, we not only undermine the discipline but threaten its very integrity.

Link to the rest at Perspectives on History, published by the American Historical Association

PG is not an eminent historian, nor is he a member of the American Historical Association, but the original article excerpted above is consistent with other historical accounts of the slave trade that he has read. In short, the trade in African slaves relied upon the active cooperation of Africans themselves, who captured and enslaved their fellow Africans in preparation for selling them to the slave traders that would carry them across the ocean to the New World.

Additionally, in the New World at the time of active slave trading across the Atlantic, a significant number of captives were sold into slavery in nations and colonies other than the United States. The British government forbade slavery in Great Britain, but slave trading was practiced in more than one British colony during this time and some British citizens made a great deal of money from such activities. The descendants of African slaves can be found today across Brazil and elsewhere in South America.

As PG has mentioned before, The 1619 Project is better understood as a 21st-century political polemic than as an accurate history of slavery in the United States and elsewhere in the New World.

Unfortunately, slavery has been widespread during different time periods in many, many places around the world. It was present during the classical period in ancient Greece and during the height of the Roman Empire. There was also slavery in Ancient Israel.

17 thoughts on “Is History History?”

  1. I disagree with one aspect of both the OP and PG’s take on the OP, and it is at the fundamental-assumption level:

    “History” is not a static, definitive set of clean laboratory facts that is not subject to later interpretation, contexts, or anything else. That there are “facts” involved is undeniable; it’s the “static,” “definitive,” and “laboratory-clean” that create most of the problems.

    Part of the problem with “history” is that it necessarily — as part of its enterprise — turns on the difficult interplay among “what the actual actors knew/should have known,” “what the contemporaries of the actual actors knew/should have known,” “what later discoveries have demonstrated,” and “the perils of 20/20 hindsight.” The 1619 Project is an example, whose focus is mostly on the second of those areas and secondarily on the last one. A perhaps-less-emotionally-charged example is “determining the date of Washington’s birthday,” which is wound up in English resistance to the Catholic-instigated changes to the “standard” European calendar,† to the meaning and value of “evidence” and “scientific thought” (not to mention the changing consensus even among contemporaneous scientists on what scientific thought required!); to silly things like whether the Statute of Anne on copyright is from 1609 or 1610.

    What value The 1619 Project has in studying American history is not a binary “it’s definitive”/”it’s a lie” question… any more than is the meaning of “historical fact” itself. And sometimes darker distortions are at issue; once upon a time, the missing eighteen minutes of secretly-recorded tapes became a matter of national importance through their very absence. We can today only infer that the “absence” or “erasure” or whatever is the most-important aspect… because, so far as we know, there’s no way to determine what was in that gap, or even the “real” reason that gap exists. More to the point, we cannot determine if there’s something “worse” in that gap than we would ordinarily imagine!

    History is not a chemistry lab; one cannot calibrate the temperature of present conversation to 100C when it begins boiling. Even in that lab, that would have to be corrected for impurities in the water, for atmospheric pressure, for the condition of the thermometer, and for a variety of other factors. All we can really say at present is that there’s some scalding steam coming off that beaker, precisely because we’re observing it after the “critical event” has taken place.

    † And England was not the last to accept them… even in Europe. Not to mention that on the date of adoption (by both the Catholic authorities and in England), it was still wrong!

    • Good points, as usual, C.

      That said, I found The 1619 Project to be exceedingly warped in its assessment of the time period it covered and the implication that slavery was foundational or especially unique to the United States and is inextricably intertwined with the nation that exists today.

      Slavery began before the hunter/gatherer stage of human development and has continued down in some parts of the world to the present day.

      Again, the idea that somehow the United States was unique in having slavery established in the Southern states is simply incorrect. The transatlantic slave trade existed from the 16th to the 19th centuries.

      I recall reading that the first known transport of slaves from Africa to the Americas occurred in the early 1500’s when a Portuguese ship carried a group of slaves to Brazil. That was, of course, a century before 1619 and 1620, when the Mayflower Compact was created in Plymouth, Massachusetts.

      In 1685, King Louis XIV signed a decree known as Code Noir or Black Code, to govern slavery in the French colonial empire. Slavery had been going on without royal approval for long beyond that. France abolished slavery in 1794, then Napolean reestablished French slavery in 1802. After the next French prohibition in 1818, slavery remained legal in the French colonial empire until 1848.

      I’m not aware of any war to free slaves that was more hard-fought than the American Civil War, which remains the war that killed more Americans on both sides than any other war in which Americans have fought, including the two World Wars of the 20th century.

      But, as usual, I could be wrong.

      • Part of the problem with evaluating The 1619 Project is that is a specialized and mixed-purpose document that is not structured as a definitive, revisionist, all-encompassing history — but that too many (including some of its proponents) forget that. In many ways, The 1619 Project should instead be treated like a speculative-fiction secret history: Its value is for less for what we take away from it as “fact” than what we take away from it as “perspective.” This is quite a parallel consideration to understanding utopian and dystopian fiction, from The Republic (which was not a republic!) on forward, through St. Augustine and More and Morris to the beginnings of despair epitomized by Wells and the dystopian turn after the Treaty of Versailles (not a statement of cause, merely a convenient marker). As a specific and obvious example, Animal Farm: A Fairy Story is not and should not be taken as a definitive statement of The True Facts and The Epistomological Truth concerning the Soviet revolution; indeed, if it was, why are so many of the character names directly traceable to the French Revolution (not to mention evidence in Orwell’s notes and earlier drafts)? On the other hand, one can learn a great deal about the zeitgeist and weltanschauung of the “revolutionary mind” of a century past… and hopefully avoid some of the errors. (So that there’s plenty of opportunity to commit new ones.)

        But that kind of highly academic theorizing has itself been under attack from various quarters (mostly, but not entirely, the present right-wing) for decades now. Which is my point: Politicians and other “social leaders” want the results from theory without doing the hard work — both factual investigation and thought process — necessary on the way to those results.† Well, as long as the results fit in with their preconceived notions… or at least with their immediate self-interest (“the object of power is power”). Conversely, they won’t pay attention at all to mild restatements that don’t threaten their comfort; their attention can only be wrested away from their fundraisers by wheels so squeaky that they’re falling off the bus — usually someone else’s bus.

        † We’re just not going to go into my struggles with the AHA when I was a professional military historian (notwithstanding my lack of a terminal degree). Let’s just say that the particular prejudices were somewhat, but not entirely, what one would have expected, and leave it at that.

        • “Perspective.” The problem with The 1619 Project is that it is not presented as that, and it is not “some” of its proponents that present it as historical fact, but the vast majority of them.

          There are facts, both convenient to the “perspective” and inconvenient, about that period of history. You can interpret them how you wish, present any “perspective” you wish, but they are still facts.

          Convenient Fact: There were Africans on that dock in 1619, whose services were sold to buyers.

          Inconvenient Fact: These Africans were not sold as slaves, if you use the conventional definition of slavery. Their indentures were sold, which were contracts to provide their services for a period of time, after which they were to be released (and most were), and by contract to be provided with a reasonable start as a free person by the owner of the indenture. Nor was their condition inheritable by their children.

          Convenient Fact: None of these Africans had voluntarily made a choice to have their services sold in order to enter the English colonies.

          Convenient Fact: The conditions of indentured servants were quite poor, for the most part. In many ways, indistinguishable from those suffered by slaves.

          Inconvenient Fact: There were white English men and women on that dock also, whose indentures were also sold.

          Inconvenient Fact: Very few, if any, of those white English people had voluntarily made a choice to have their services sold in order to enter the English colonies. Many of them were “gutter sweepings,” undesirables from the perspective of the “proper” people in England of the time.

          Inconvenient Fact: If the first “slaves” were sold on that dock, by applying “perspective” to equate indentured servitude to slavery, then far, far more slaves in the English colonies were of white English extraction. Until “King Cotton” ascended his throne, and the first faint moral sense that involuntary servitude was not a good thing (at least for those of white English forebears).

          Inconvenient Fact: If one accepts the conventional definition of slavery – lifetime, inheritable servitude – the first slave, and the first African slave, in the English colonies was owned by a black man who was born in present day Angola. A man who had served out his own indenture, and was a “free Negro” – but did not want to share that condition with his servant.

          Accepting a “perspective” that is based solely on convenient facts – and ignoring the inconvenient – is a very fraught manner of thinking. One that inevitably engenders conflict.

          (One can see this in the present day. There are two “perspectives” about Donald J. Trump – that of those with Trump Derangement Syndrome, and of those with Trump Worship Syndrome. There are demonstrable facts underlying both of those perspectives – but neither side accepts those that are not convenient to their own perspective. This has led to violent conflict in several cases, and will almost certainly lead to more such.)

          • Indentured servitude was an “interesting” institution (very different from slavery) that endures to this day under different names.


            Its role in the forging of the country was pretty significant, for all the attempts to sweep it under the rug:

            “During its time, the system was so prominent that more than half of all immigrants to British colonies south of New England were white servants, and that nearly half of total white immigration to the Thirteen Colonies came under indenture.”

            “Between the 1630s and the American Revolution, one-half to two-thirds of white immigrants to the Thirteen Colonies arrived under indentures.”

            Indenture made a return after the end of slavery and endured in Britain until 1917 (oficially). Unoficially, it is practiced today (along with outright slavery) by human traffickers and a variety of migrant exploitation schemes.

            But, hey, it’s better to dwell on the sins, real and imagined, of the past than to deal with the sins of the present. After all, it allows for cheap nannies and gardeners.

  2. From where I sit 1619 isn’t history nor is it *trying* to be.
    Rather it is a political exercise trying to use a presentist CRT polemic to try to change the American national myth.,epic%20or%20be%20incorporated%20into%20a%20civil%20religion.

    I don’t see it coming anywhere close to success simply because national myths do not change discontinuously nor from the top down (much less top down from an ivory tower). National myths *evolve*. Slowly, by consensus, from the bottom up. (Consider the evolution from Manifest Destiny to the current view of the Mexican war.)

    Also, national myths are the social glue that maintain national cohesion through buy-in from the populace and a narrative like 1619 is selling isn’t going too far in a country that is 76% white. And 15% immigrant. White guilt only goes so far…in good times. And bad times are phasing in.

  3. I canceled my membership with the AHA long ago when they weaponized their organization for ideology. They gave up their passion for objective history long ago.

    • The way I heard it from a historian friend is that current baseline for post modernist history is that there is no objective history, just narratives. I had no interest in arguing and better uses for my book buying funds.

      FWIW, the greeks considered history as one of the arts, hence Clio. Patron of not only the retelling of events but also the stories themselves. History and drama as siblings, one wholly made up with no pretense of reality.

          • In a lot of ways, that’s the core of the issue. There is active contempt within the academy for almost anyone who spends any time at all engaging with the public rather than writing books and articles that only their fellow academics will read, despite the fact that academia relies on public support for its funding.

  4. The thing about Roman/Greek/Levantine slavery is that it wasn’t the same thing as New World slavery. More like indentured servitude.

    • They usually treated the slaves better and sometimes they were allowed to buy their freedom but the condition was hereditary.
      It’s more of a spectrum just like all southern slaves weren’t all treated the same. Nor were mexican, caribbean, or brazilian slaves.
      It varied by country, region, and even “owner”.,

      The key difference being that indenture was/is an obligation whereas slavery was/is a condition. The former is temporary the latter (mostly) permanent.

      • Until public fear of the number of “Free Negroes” was whipped up, slaves in the colonies could buy their freedom. In fact, the first law banning manumission (with the exception of undefined “meritorious services”), was not enacted until 1775 in North Carolina.

        In fact, until the Secession, very few States banned manumission for any reason. Though most of them enacted exclusion and expulsion laws for free blacks. Frequently not followed in either letter or spirit – Louisiana had one such law, but free blacks in New Orleans pretty much sailed right through the Civil War. Far too much of the economy depended on them (and many were slave owners themselves).

    • It varied drastically with time, place and the market costs of replacing your slaves. If new slaves are dirt cheap it’s profitable to skimp on food and clothing and wear out your existing workers with very harshly enforced hard labour: the slaves are just an easily and cheaply replaced asset to be used and discarded.

      I think that a quick study of the servile wars will convince most students that Roman slavery was often nothing like indentured servitude. In fact, if I dared to in the current on-line climate, I might claim that Southern slavery look positively benign by comparison. At least, though retribution would be brutal, the murder of a Southern planter would not normally see all his slaves tortured and executed (which was a public policy designed to motivate slaves to keep their masters alive).

      Of course, the lives of those slaves in Sicily were no worse that the 20th century victims of Stalin being worked to death in the gulags or those of Hitler’s slave labourers.

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