ESSAY: We’re Already Here

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.

THE LONG VIEW: History for the Next Century (August 21, 2022)

Dr. Walter D. Greason is the foremost historian of digital pedagogy and community preservation. He is a professor and chair of the department of history at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota.

James Sweet does recognize a problem in the historical profession in his essay, “Is History History” (IHH), published earlier this week. The relationship among journalism, history, and media has reached a critical state. His attempt to reinstate an early twentieth century standard about ‘presentism’ drives scholars and readers away from historical analysis precisely when they need it most.

As an essay, IHH begins with a faulty premise about the 1619 Project and recent journalism that incorporates historical themes. The indictment of historical work that engages in current policy debates and social justice work negates whole areas of work (notably, women’s history, LGBTQ history, social history of capitalism, and the whole range of Ethnic Studies fields) that have enriched the profession immeasurably over the last sixty years.

Then, it closes with the abuse of history represented in recent Supreme Court rulings, where arguments about originalism derive from erroneous readings of eighteenth century English common law. The linkage between the transformation of the historical profession and the diminution of the federal judiciary are connected, but not in the ways that Sweet implies. The Supreme Court is trying to silence the profession as it has evolved. The historical profession, in its most inclusive places, affirms humanity universally, creating a foundation for new legal traditions and rulings.

The criticisms in IHH hit home here because the expansion of historical content and applications is the heart of my career. I believe that history educators are equal partners with the distinguished chairs in higher education. I believe that public historians in museums and parks have knowledge and skills that are as (or more) rigorous than the practices of publication at the top three academic outlets. I believe that impact is not simply measured in relation to DOI tracking, but also through social media metrics and sustained relationships in communities and schools.

My best work over the last decade involves the breakthrough in getting professional recognition for other scholars to engage the public through digital platforms, especially Twitter. Could there be more robust systems of organization and editing for the content produced through these outlets? Certainly. Do we need more clear descriptions of which works are academic histories, journalistic histories, and scholastic histories? Definitely.

What none of us can overcome are the fraudulent attacks on academic discourse that have eliminated funding for higher education, created peonage for three generations of college students, and the storm of automated social media accounts that seek to silence dissent in pursuit of universal human rights. When the AHA locked its social media account, it was not due to the membership protesting the limitations of historical vision in IHH. It was the massive, white nationalist campaign to attack the profession for including more voices and perspectives.

James Sweet and the AHA have an important opportunity in the next four months to welcome honest contributions from public advocates across the political spectrum. Nineteenth century standards of “presentism” will not help us to create history for the next century. Bringing the advancements of the profession, especially Black Studies, public pedagogy, and social media, will.

It must not repeat the mistakes that followed the Brown v. Board decision. The nation (and the world) assumed that Black institutions were inferior to white institutions and had to be eliminated to create equal opportunity. While the physical facilities (bathrooms, water fountains, train cars, etc.) were certainly unacceptable, the human beings who led and developed those segregated institutions were some of the best experts to create equal justice. The choice to cast them aside, to reject expanded investment in their work, expanded the impoverishment of the Global South and empowered the white nationalist coalitions that had no interest in justice and human rights.

Today, the historical profession has a chance to place the best historians at the center of every program, archive, park, museum, department, and university. Look to the vibrant new fields of study to shape an engaged, responsible standard of historical knowledge production that allows all people to benefit. In publishing, film, music, architecture, and public policy, history is essential.

We can make the AHA what it always should have been — a treasure for people everywhere.

RARE: To Preserve and Protect (NJ Suburbs)

Where do white nationalists and insurrectionists gather to build their campaigns against equal justice for all people? The rural corridor in NJ (Ocean, Burlington, and Monmouth Counties) is one example among thousands in the United States. This resource showcases the ways this culture took root. Thankfully, it also features a few examples of how history can work to break these traditions.

To Preserve and Protect, Monmouth County Clerk’s Office

Historians like Clement Alexander Price and Giles Wright built a foundation for understanding the African American experience in New Jersey. Recently, Richard Veit and Graham Russell Hodges have added important perspectives and evidence to these traditions. Suburban Erasure and The Path to Freedom opened the doors to new vitality in New Jersey Studies. Young leaders like Nichole Nelson, Hettie Williams, and Melissa Ziobro use this bounty to build bridges to a new generation of scholars. At its heart, this work must dismantle the traditions of white nationalism, especially in American and European institutions.

My career of research and activism provides a strong model for the future. Villanova University’s Strategic Plan for Cultural Diversity transformed its commitment to justice and equity. Temple University’s contributions to the National Dialogue on Race, in conjunction with the UJIMA Collective, transformed regional governance in Philadelphia. The emergence of the First Suburbs coalition in Pennsylvania created the infrastructure for the world economy through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in 2009 as well as the BIB and BBB legislation under the Biden Administration this year.

Infographics about economic data became an industry after the publication of American Economy (2015).

For a decade, these projects energized the emergence of the new histories of capitalism and the global movement towards Afrofuturism, generating the foundation for Ibram Kendi’s anti-racist research, Keisha Blain’s approach to Black internationalism, William Darity’s data on reparations, Spike Lee’s BlackKklansman, Paige Glotzer’s history of racial segregation, Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther, Marcia Chatelain’s analysis of Black businesses, and the virtual core of Academic Twitter.

All of these projects provide ways to challenge the traditions of white nationalism highlighted in To Preserve and Protect. This rare resource marks a transition from the limitations of the twentieth century to expansive, new frameworks in the twenty-first.