The essay by James Sweet, “Is History History?,” has already caused a firestorm since it was published last week in the American Historical Association’s newsletter, Perspectives on History. It has already elicited a public apology from its author, though it will likely continue to be the center of much-needed debate about History and its audiences.
As a medievalist historian, who works on a deeper past than Sweet even alludes to, I, too, have fears for History, but mine have little overlap with Sweet’s. I became a historian because I saw historical inquiry as an avenue to make sense of the world I lived in. A world where I, as the child of a mother of European descent and a father of African descent, didn’t understand why those continental destinies had produced a world, in the present, that was so full of racial prejudice.
What I found in History, in college and then graduate school, was a field where my curiosities—the many questions that I had: about science and medicine, about women and gender, about divisive prejudices, about physical suffering—could not simply be pursued, but could yield real answers. Even after quitting a tenured job where doing History with integrity had become impossible, I continue to be a historian because the present, and the future, are all we
“Doing history with integrity” is in fact a phrase Sweet uses. He says that “[it] requires us to interpret elements of the past not through the optics of the present but within the worlds of our historical actors.” Yet the link Sweet provided was to a short YouTube video put together by the AHA, not on doing history with integrity, but teaching it—specifically doing so on the topic of
American slavery in the context of increasingly draconian state laws constraining the content of instruction. The “optics of the present” are precisely what’s constraining instruction of history.
Others, as I noted, have already commented on L’Affaire Sweet. Among the many important points raised are the ways adjunctification—the deprofessionalizing of our profession—have gutted the field. Not yet noted, either by Sweet or those critics I have read thus far, is what I consider one of the greatest successes of historical work in the past decade: the systematic
documentation of the ways institutions of higher learning themselves were (and are) themselves complicit in both slavery and the dispossession of Indigenous lands.
I did not see myself in Sweet’s diagnosis of History’s ills. And he, it seems, does not have a vision that makes my existence possible. Yet here I am: 37 years out from having received my PhD from a top program; well-published (including work on Africa, Sweet’s own field); recognized by my peers both in medieval history and History of Science; moderately successful as a #twitterstorian. A prize has recently been created in my name by one of my professional
associations, the Medieval Academy of America. What is it for? For “scholarship and public engagement that demonstrates the importance of studying the past to understand the present.”
History has many audiences. And that’s as it should be. I needed a history of “Who I Was” as a child. My father, later in life, needed a history of who he was and sought it out through both genealogical research and DNA. And yes, “tourism” to Africa. We all—as a world on the brink of fire and flood—need a history of how we reached this precipice. For in that history might be
some guidance on how we might pull back from the edge and save ourselves.
My advice to Sweet: Gather up the professional historians you and other elite institutions have already trained and take ownership of us. We’re already here.
Monica H. Green is a historian of medicine and global health. She lives in Phoenix, AZ, and is working now as an independent scholar. She is looking forward to soon completing her book, The Black Death: A Global History, and returning to her work on the eleventh-century immigrant and medical translator, Constantine the African. She is an elected Fellow of the Medieval Academy of America, and the namesake of the recently inaugurated Monica H. Green Prize for Distinguished Medieval Research.