A Horrible Look for the American Historical Association
What was the president of the American Historical Association thinking?
On Tuesday James Sweet published what can only be described as a hit piece on the organization’s website. He accused his fellow academic historians of falling victim to presentism, whose interpretations of the recent past do little more than, “collapse into the familiar terms of contemporary debates, leaving little room for the innovative, counterintuitive interpretations.”
According to Sweet:
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.
The author fails to provide a single example to back up his claim. Not one journal article or scholarly monograph, representing this “new history,” is cited to substantiate his claim.
Sweet seems to think that he is the first person to suggest that historians should, “interpret elements of the past not through the optics of the present but within the worlds of our historical actors.”
Instead and perhaps predictably, the only book referenced in Sweet’s piece is Nikole Hannah-Jones’s The 1619 Project, but even in this case he offers little in the way of serious analysis of the individual essays, a number of which are authored by academic historians.
Sweet makes no attempt to show how historians like Kevin Kruse, Matthew Delmont, and Tiya Miles have fallen under the spell of presentism in their respective chapters.
Instead, Sweet asks if the book and the broader project should even count as history. Seriously?
Hannah-Jones has never claimed to be a historian, but she has written quite eloquently and insightfully about what motivated her to create The 1619 Project. A president of the AHA would do well to try to understand why this project has been embraced by so many people and I would suggest that the reasons go far beyond anything having to do with presentism.
The author seems almost laments the fact that a copy of the book found its way into the hands of a group of African Americans, who found their way to Ghana to tour Elmina Castle—one of the most notorious slave trading sites on the west coast of Africa. Lost in all of this is the fact that people are reading history and traveling to historic sites to better understand the history of slavery and the slave trade.
Apparently, no attempt was made to engage this group in discussion to find out a little more about how they interpret Hannah-Jones’s book or why they had traveled to Ghana.
There is nothing inappropriate about critiquing a work of popular history or the interpretive framework of a historic site, but Sweet goes about this in an entirely inappropriate way.
Finally, the timing of this piece could not have been worse. Sweet’s conclusions confirm just about every unsubstantiated assumption made by Republican lawmakers and their allies about history teachers and history education. It’s just a matter of time before we see references to this piece and the AHA on FOX News and other right-wing publications.
Teachers are beginning to return to the classroom for what promises to be another challenging year. States across the country have passed or are in the process of passing legislation that curtails the teaching of certain subjects, especially the history of slavery and white supremacy in the United States.
Sweet’s characterization of his fellow academic historians as preoccupied with “social justice issues—race, gender, sexuality, nationalism, capitalism” and insinuations about how The 1619 Project is being utilized by some educators will only serve to justify even further restrictions and harassment.
Regardless of whether he intended to do so or not, Sweet has made it easier for Republican lawmakers and their allies to ignore the question of how history is actually being taught in public school classrooms across the country.
I understand that one article—even one written by the president—does not represent the views of an entire organization, but this is a horrible look for the American Historical Association.
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