Highlights from the OAH

The Octavius Catto Memorial outside Philadelphia’s City Hall (I took this picture!)

Last week I was at the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians. It was great to be in such an intellectually stimulating environment. Writing a dissertation is for many of us a long and isolating slog. It was refreshing to think and talk about big ideas with great historians. It was also nice to see the wide range of opinion stretching from left all the way to center left (I kid, but only a little). Here are some idiosyncratic highlights.

I think there remains a lot of angst about the place of historians in an era of declining support for humanities and the flourishing of anti-reality politics. At one panel, a historian in the audience plaintively asked how we could convince people what we do is important. Well, good luck with that.

Someone who I think feels this angst, and has tried to respond decisively to it, is Jill Lepore. I thoroughly enjoyed a roundtable gathered to discuss Lepore’s new history of the United States, These Truths. For all her intellectual brilliance and sterling prose, at bottom Lepore seems to have an idealistic—I fear naive—hope in the power of truth and reason to overcome falsehood and fear. Can books like These Truths provide the American public an antidote to the alluring racist mythologies of Trumpism? Lepore thinks we’ve at least got to try.

At the end of the roundtable, after hearing her colleagues’ praise and criticism (more on that below) she concluded with an impassioned call for historians to do the hard work of constructing stories of national identity that the American public can grab onto. One of the criticisms of grand syntheses is that they seem inevitably to simplify, and worse, exclude. But Lepore believes we must be willing to take these risks. Nationalism is not going away. Publics will not do without stories that anchor identity. If historians do not engage the public and provide responsible stories based in fact and a vision of the common good, racist nationalism stands waiting in the wings.

I find Lepore’s vision convincing in spite of the problems with her book. (I should clarify that I haven’t read it! But I will.) Randall Kennedy said he would like to see more about the 1875 Civil Rights Act and the Supreme Court’s striking down of it in 1883. Everyone, of course, has their pet causes, but this one seems especially worthy of more attention. It is striking to read the public debate on the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and see the extent to which the legal history of Reconstruction had completely vanished from the public mind. Though Southern senators were well aware of the 1880s Supreme Court precedents in their favor, I don’t think the American public knew (or knows now) that the federal government enacted the principle of nondiscrimination in public accommodations in 1875. Understanding this makes the struggle for equality appear so much more contingent and open-ended than facile “time has come” stories.

David Hollinger did not hide his admiration, saying “This is a great book.” He encouraged critics to imagine going page by page, thinking about how they might present the story better. Of course they might be able to in a few areas of their expertise. But then, Hollinger said, do that 700 times. Still, Hollinger thought Lepore gives short shrift to religion and immigration in the 20th century.

Jeff Pasley seemed to think Lepore was too nostalgic about the possibilities of truth winning out over lies. In Lepore’s vision, Murrow and Cronkite preside over the midcentury scene with responsibly furrowed eyebrows.

But the most interesting response came from Malinda Lowery, who blasted the book for its exclusion of American Indians. It’s not that tales of atrocity and resistance are literally absent; it’s that Lepore’s vision of national identity and expanding civil rights is notably misaligned with the realities of Indian sovereignty claims and treaty rights. To put it simply, how do you construct a national story when there are so many nations within the borders of the American state? This question, informed by settler colonial studies, has not entered the public consciousness in the way the African American experience has. As much as slavery and Jim Crow trouble the American conscience, writing these experiences into a national story of rights-expansion is not so difficult. American Indian experiences burst out of this framework and upset grand narratives. Lepore said, with I think evident sincerity, that this critique has kept her up at night.

Ok, I said this was going to be OAH highlights but that was all about one panel. Continuing the theme of angst about historians’ role in this moment, a plenary session brought together a panel of journalists and historians to discuss how they can learn from each other and work together (I think this is the nice way of putting it). Tom Gjelten of NPR bluntly said that some historians do a good job of engaging the public, but many don’t. This didn’t sit particularly well with a roomful of historians, nor with panelist Danielle McGuire. There ensued an in-the-room version of the digital uproar of a few weeks ago when Max Boot dared to criticize historians for failing the public.

There are lots of reasons to think that the picture is not as clear as Gjelten painted it, but I’m less interested in those than in the opportunity critiques like Gjelten’s and Boot’s give us to be self-critical as a community of scholars. Obviously it would have been very foolish for Gjelten (while sitting two chairs down from Danielle McGuire of all people!) to say categorically that historians do not engage the public. But that’s not what he said. He said some are good at this and some aren’t. Instead of firing back with all the reasons it’s harder for us to access mainstream popular spaces than he realizes, why don’t we pause and see if the shoe fits?

Let’s be honest. Our training and incentive structure in the academy do not reward the quick-on-your-feet writing and thinking that popular engagement may require. And if you’ve sat through graduate seminars, you can’t tell me that you haven’t seen colleagues slip into the safety and allure of specialized impenetrable jargon. Some of us never recover! Some of us couldn’t write for the public to save our lives. This isn’t to say that all historians all the time should be trying to reach the public. That would be disastrous for the work of scholarship. But it is to say that maybe we as a collective community of scholars can ponder whether we have created an environment that is really good at churning out specialized monographs, but produces too few Lepores and McGuires. The high appreciation Ta-Nehisi Coates has received from historians in recent years is due to his open reliance on their work. But doesn’t this praise carry with it the admission that we needed a translator?

I think what is interesting about this debate is how emotional it is. Historians feel threatened in this moment. We must be willing to turn our practiced critical eye not only toward our historical subjects, but ourselves. There is more to be said (I only mentioned two panels!) but I’ll leave it there for now.

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