I Am A Historian: On Presentism

I Am A Historian: On Presentism August 19, 2022

This probably should have been my introductory piece, but now it has been precipitated by a recent piece by the president of the AHA, Dr. James Sweet. In this piece, Dr. Sweet lamented, alongside Lynn Hunt from twenty years ago, that the entire academic discipline of history seems to be pressing toward presentism, perhaps best understood as viewing the past through the lens of the present, especially, as Sweet names, through the categories of “race, gender, sexuality, nationalism, and capitalism.” In this account, Sweet continues, historians often “ignore the values and mores of people in their own times, as well as change over time,” a damning indictment if true. After all, aren’t historians supposed to be all about context? Aren’t historians supposed to be able to show us how things do (or do not) change over time? 

I think there is a point at which Dr. Sweet hits the nail on the head. For example, accounts of slavery that treat the United States instantiation of chattel slavery as normative for the transatlantic slave trade miss the mark in precisely the way that he narrates. But what is more present throughout the piece is a prevailing emotion: fear. Fear for the discipline and fear that it will be diluted by a new batch of historians imposing their pre-conceived notions on a past foreign to such notions, a phenomenon that is by no means new or restricted to current historians. 

But this is not the most upsetting element of this piece. John Fea articulates it in his own piece that enthusiastically affirmed Sweet’s: “Is presentism bad? Let’s put it this way: if all a ‘historian’ does is write books with the intent purpose of trying to explain the present (and frame their work in such a way) then they should just call themselves sociologists or activists or religious studies scholars or political scientists. All of the practitioners of these disciplines also work in the past, but they are not historians.” This is an interesting piece of boundary policing, especially given my own history.

I began my PhD in Religion (Historical Studies) seeking to be a theologian. But the wonderful Reformation scholar, David Whitford, pulled me in to study Calvin, whom I loved dearly. In the meantime, I was being socialized and re-educated: trained to be a historian. I was asking different questions. My good friend João Chaves kept encouraging me to consider economics in my assessments and narrations of historical events. I resisted it at the time. But when I came into contact with the fundamentalist/modernist controversy in the early twentieth century in a class, I had a visceral response. I knew that Black men and women were being publicly burned alive during that period and we spent very little time talking about that phenomenon. I knew my research had to change.

W. E. B. Du Bois had a similar moment. When he heard about the lynching of Sam Hose, he rethought the particular focus of the sociological work that he was doing. He heard that Hose’s knuckles were being displayed at a grocery store and according to him, “two considerations thereafter broke in upon my work and eventually disrupted it: first, one could not be a calm, cool, and detached scientist while Negroes were lynched, murdered and starved; and secondly, there was no such definite demand for scientific work of the sort that I was doing.” After coming to terms with the brutality of racial violence, Du Bois realized that whatever work he would continue to do, he would do for his people. One of the most brilliant intellectual minds of the nineteenth and twentieth century did his work not for a particular academic discipline, but for the preservation and enrichment of human life.

This impulse, in fact, is central to the Black American intellectual and political tradition. This tradition has never been “objective” nor has it sought to be so. In fact, so-called “objectivity” is not only a myth, but it is morally reprehensible. We do not think merely to think; we think in order to resist evil, in order to live, and in order to love. Because Black people in this country have, since its beginning, been subject to the threat of terroristic violence and attempted domination and exploitation, we have marshaled much of our intellectual and political resources not to speculation or to thought experiments, but to liberation. When Sweet laments the fact that historians seem to only now focus on “race, gender, sexuality, nationalism and capitalism,” I see the constructs that shape the world in which we live. But it is precisely because I am a historian (although perhaps in my own mind!) that robust engagement with these dreaded concepts is most fruitful. Being a historian reminds me that race and capitalism, specifically, are historical phenomena. History taught me that people created the category of race in order to exploit one another. History taught me that what keeps capitalism going is often the development of new technologies in order to exploit labor. History, through voices like Oliver Cox, Cedric Robinson, Edward Baptist, Robin D. G. Kelley, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, taught me to connect the two in understanding racial capitalism and its tendrils that have extended through world history for a few centuries now. History then also reminds me that if people made it, then people can unmake it.

Such an accounting does not in fact ignore the values and mores of people in their own times. But it does pass judgment, and it does not haphazardly do so. I am reminded of the voices that call prominent theologians in the eighteenth and nineteenth century “men of their times” when referring to their virulently racist pro-slavery stances. It is not an imposition of a foreign standard that I apply when I call those stances virulently racist; it is the recognition and elevation of a standard contemporary to their own, namely that of the enslaved. If objectivity means that I treat evil ideas the same as I treat just ones, I have no time for it. 

As a human being studying other human beings, a necessary self-understanding for a historian, I cannot do so “objectively.” I must see the people I study as complex because humanity is complex. In order to truly understand their choices, I must understand their context: the world in which particular choices were made available to them, where they, like we, can only act on what we see. But I am morally obligated to call heinous evil what it is and to reveal the historical resources available to resist it as it remains. Not every historian is called to this work, but there are surely some that are. I do not think that their relentless care for people in the present dilutes their rigorous historical work. They (or perhaps more precisely, we) can be historians and activists, historians and sociologists, historians and political theorists. Perhaps no one did it better than the legend Du Bois himself. 

This brings us back to the fear: a fear of losing majors for those who teach undergraduate courses, a fear of the meshing of academic boundaries upon which many have built mini-kingdoms, a fear that perhaps there will be historians who see their work as not less than academic, but more. Folks like Du Bois and myself have different fears: fear of racist violence, the likes of which is currently on the rise in our political climate, as it was when Du Bois did his activism. 

Fear of loss of employment, as I know colleagues who, because of their insistence on robust institutional and personal accountability, have been excised from unjust institutions. This fear coincides with that of Fea and Sweet, but it locates the problem not in the historians themselves, but in the systems in which they find themselves. If the market, whether academic or otherwise, does not value your work, you will be tempted to change it, allowing the exploitation to continue. 

Fear of ridicule because we are asking questions that will directly affect our lives, and not merely ours, but also those of our families. 

Yet, often that fear is driven out by urgency and in the grander scheme, it is this urgency that will bring students back to the classroom. They will resonate with a history that informs them about human nature: how humans have worked and continue to work, how humans have dominated and exploited one another and how they have resisted, how humans have loved and failed to love. Of course we must understand the past on its own terms, but if we are considering fellow human beings, we must also be comfortable with the fact that perhaps their terms and our terms are more similar than we think. 

So am I a historian? I think so. Others may not think so. But at the end of the day, that doesn’t particularly matter as much as we are told it does. What matters is whether we, with all we have, do and think, love our neighbors.

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