Historians for the Present

Karin Wulf covers how historians are becoming central to a culture craving context

Historians for the Present
By Dr. Karin Wulf

Has anyone written about “x” in the last few hours? This is a real question historians have asked themselves and their colleagues as we hurtle through what seems like — in terms of the pace and volume of events and the pace and volume of news produced — an extraordinary time. Just in the last few weeks in the United States, we have lurched from insurrection to impeachment to inauguration. The blissfully ordinary pomp and circumstance of inauguration — lifted by some exquisite poetry and prose — was managed in the midst of all that and a pandemic that has now killed more than 400,000 Americans in less than a year. For a profession that typically works at a more measured pace, galvanizing to respond to these events for the 24 hours news cycle is itself extraordinary.

Recently, a group of historians contributed to a post for “The Scholarly Kitchen” on living through pandemic and political crisis and how it intersects with their work. In the introduction for the post, I noted that we’re always living through history and that in some ways historians are always attuned to how what is happening in the present is resonant with the past. We are by nature and training inclined to think about historical context, and in any era you can find historians responding to their present.

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Perhaps in any era historians find their own time uniquely challenging. Yet, so many features of the last year in the US really do seem to urgently call for historical perspective: two presidential impeachments, pandemic, unprecedented (in scale) protests against police violence, an unprecedented assault on the United States Congress — and the less obvious but equally critical local and domestic impacts.

Historians write as much or more about the histories that don’t make headlines but probably should. While journalism offers us what is new, what is just happening, historians tell us what has been, what continues to be. As Vanessa Holden of the University of Kentucky, who is months from publishing a book — “Surviving Southampton: African American Women and Resistance in Nat Turner’s Community” — reflected in the “Scholarly Kitchen” post :

Black death, from Covid-19 and police violence, has been ever present in our kinship networks, communities, neighborhoods, and on our newsfeeds. Survival requires labor: the day-to-day work, choices, and determination to endure. But, as I write in my book, the word survivor has more than one meaning. . . . When the camera moves on, what work of survival will we take up? What ways will we endure bereavement? And what of our work will endure?

The kinds of platforms that historians have developed or harnessed have helped give us voice. Social media has offered scholars of American history like Keisha Blain, Joanne Freeman, and Kevin Kruse a regular outlet for sharing their appearances and longer writing and for real-time responses to political and other developments. Newsletters and blogs are a way for historians to reach regular readers; when Ben Smith profiled Heather Cox Richardson for the New York Times he simply reported what many of us knew, namely that her Substack newsletter, “Letters from An American,” became a daily must-read for its informed and measured context for the maelstrom. (It also beautifully echoes in form and spirit as well as title de Crevecoeur’s “Letters from an American Farmer” and John Dickinson’s “Letters from an American Farmer in Pennsylvania.”)  The “Made by History” series in the Washington Post runs at least one op-ed a day from a historian with insights on issues of the moment. And there is more.

In short, if there ever was an ivory tower, fewer working historians are working in those anyway, and those who do spend more time out of it speaking and writing for public audiences on new platforms and in new outlets. This is all to the good — the public good, that is. You’ll find in all these efforts a conviction that evidence-based historical context is critical for democracy. That context is key for understanding the formation of the nation, but is also important for the pragmatic work of policy. Historians responding to the pandemic have overwhelmingly shown how predictably disease events track racism and socio-economic equality, for example.

And historians have been able to offer some needed context around nostalgic notions of American exceptionalism. While the cry in response to the riot and insurrection at the Capitol from some commentators and occasionally even some scholars that “this is not who we are” is wrenching, it is also flat wrong. It is true that the extremist violence on display January 6th runs counter to many narratives about what America values, but it has a deep history. As Richardson wrote in an assessment echoed by many historians:

The January 6 assault on the Capitol is not an aberration. It has been coming for a very long time.

Kellie Carter Jackson, a scholar of the long history of racism and policing, wrote in The Atlantic about the key context of “white backlash to racial equality and white entitlement to political, economic, and social control.” The history of racism, the ideology of white supremacy, and the politics of racial grievance run deep. I urge anyone who has not read Yale historian Timothy Snyder’s analysis in the New York Times of what comes next for the Republican party to do so. It is among other things a particularly clear summary of the consequences of having starved our information diets of history. Snyder writes:

My own view is that greater knowledge of the past, fascist or otherwise, allows us to notice and conceptualize elements of the present that we might otherwise disregard and to think more broadly about future possibilities.

Two features of historians’ public writing and appearances going forward seem especially important. The first is simply not letting up. The platforms that historians have built and those they have energized — it is not going unnoticed that historians are gaining regular columns and invitations from traditional media — will continue to grow. Resources for journalists and others (such as the database WomenAlsoKnowHistory.com) can help locate historians and their expertise.

The second is that historians and journalists can produce powerfully important work when we look beyond the immediate news cycle to longer and deeper histories. The New York Times’ “1619 Project” has been the subject of extensive coverage, but it is worth repeating that most of the work is based on and/or echoes decades of historical scholarship. The Times’ digital essay on the environmental impact of redlining in Richmond is another example of fantastic work with a deeper historical perspective that wasn’t driven by the news cycle du jour.

There are good arguments that more education, more information, more history in particular is not a foolproof antidote to the toxic brew of corruption, disinformation, and inequity that ails democracy.

But it will be a key part of building a more resilient democracy.

Karin A. Wulf is an American historian and the Executive Director of the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. She writes occasionally for “The Geyser.” Her other posts are:

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