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.

Notes from the Classroom: Telling Transnational Stories

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Because my class is about immigration, I thought the statue of liberty deserved its own lecture this week. It was a story that took us from French abolitionists and the conceiving of a monument to emancipation, to pogroms in the Pale of Settlement in the Russian Empire, to the hapless fundraising efforts of a committee in New York, to the life of Emma Lazarus and her obscure poem that would later become indelibly linked to the immigrant story and American identity.

It was also a chronologically expansive story that raised questions about memory and the shifting meanings we attach to symbols. When the statue of liberty was dedicated in 1886, none of the speakers mentioned immigrants. As everyone knew, that’s not what the statue was about. At the 50th anniversary ceremony in 1936, President Roosevelt spoke about nothing but immigration. As everyone knew, that’s what the statue was about. In many ways, it was the immigrants themselves who had made it so. As I tell my students, whatever the American Dream was, it was not only made in America.

Then on Wednesday we went from Fiddler on the Roof to the massacre at Wounded Knee. While the Russian Empire made life increasingly difficult for Jews—and while the statue of liberty was being dedicated—the American Empire was wrapping up its counterinsurgency campaigns in the West. In the U.S., it was only in this period in the decades after the Civil War that the state was actually able to exert effective control over all the territory it claimed. In the process, it increasingly claimed the right to tell minority populations where they could live, what they could do, and even the religious practices they could engage in. State violence against despised minorities was crucial to the turn of the century mass migration that formed modern America. While Russian violence made immigrants and refugees, American violence paved the way for their arrival and transformed immigrants into settlers.

I argued that this claim is not an abstraction or a metaphor, but a tangible reality on the ground. Take Pennington County, South Dakota, for example. It is home to Rapid City, and adjacent to the Pine Ridge Reservation where the Wounded Knee Massacre occurred. It is built entirely on land guaranteed to Native Americans by federal treaty. In 1890, less than two decades after its founding, 18% of its population was foreign born. They came from Canada and Germany, Ireland and Sweden, England and Norway. By 1910, there was a small contingent of Russian Jews too. Their opportunity was inseparable from the dispossession of others.

There are probably very few historians being trained now who would argue against the importance of telling transnational stories. But it’s easier said than done. When we tell transnational stories, it usually means there are a lot of balls to keep in the air. Sometimes they don’t all stay up. On Monday, I said meanwhile and suddenly we lurched from New York to Ukraine. These transitions were abrupt enough to be comical. After the lecture, a student emailed me to ask me what the point was. That makes it sound more disastrous than it probably was. The student was quite engaged and had incisive questions. But one of my main points had lacked clarity and she wanted more information. Good for her!

When we tell transnational stories, the contexts we need to be familiar with multiply quickly. This is one reason we might shy away from attempting it in the first place. I am not a historian of Russia; what errors might I introduce in my brief characterization of the 1881 pogroms? Will this broader story aid student understanding, or will my own imbalanced knowledge—heavy on U.S. national history—only confuse the story?

But the payoffs can be substantial, perhaps especially in the case of immigration history. Most immigration is by its nature a transnational act with connections to multiple countries. It doesn’t make historical sense to only focus on the destination country. This is one reason I’ve assigned Tara Zahra’s new book.

There are also broader benefits to be gained. I’ll note just one. There is no adequate way to deal with questions of American exceptionalism while teaching only an American national story. Transnational history helps us to engage more productively with notions of national identity and the meaning of America. If we’re only telling a national story and students hear about the millions of people who came here seeking opportunity, they may be inclined to think the United States is exceptionally good. But then when they hear about the discrimination and violence aimed at these immigrants, they may think the United States is exceptionally bad. But if we come to class thinking the U.S. is the best and leave thinking it’s the worst, we’re just as myopic and American-centric as when we started.

A broader framework upsets both assumptions, allowing students to see that millions of people were also immigrating to other places in search of opportunity, and that they faced hardship and discrimination both in their home countries and in their new destinations. It enables us to see a more nuanced and complicated story about how opportunity and oppression moved alongside each other, and about the millions of immigrants who came to America with the dream not of becoming Americans, but of returning to their homelands as soon as they could.

Notes from the Classroom: The Stickiness of National Myth

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Arthur Boyd. Persecuted Lovers. 1957. Australia. A painting rich in settler colonial themes.

How is my settler colonialism experiment going? The results in the first two weeks of class have been intriguing. My students who have been in the U.S. for any length of time came into the classroom with some intuitive familiarity with the nation of immigrants story. And I don’t think it was hard for them to understand that the story functions as more than a statement of historical fact—that it is also a statement of national identity and exceptionalism. So what would happen if I begin the class by bombarding them for two weeks with a completely different story? What if the United States was and is a colonial state whose foundations are in the conquest and dispossession of indigenous people?

I even had them read Mahmood Mamdani on settler colonialism this week (it was too hard for most of them and maybe I shouldn’t have assigned it). Mamdani confronts the question of American exceptionalism head on and argues that what makes the U.S. exceptional is that it is the first modern settler colonial state and it still hasn’t decolonized. So the students had, on the one hand, a traditional immigrant story of national identity. On the other hand, they had been exposed to a settler colonial narrative, culminating in Mamdani’s forceful critique of traditional exceptionalist narratives. Before breaking into small groups I gave them one more argument: what if the settler colonial story is historically sound, but civically destructive? What if it doesn’t produce good citizens? What if it harms the civic fabric? What if it doesn’t promote patriotism? (I don’t agree with this argument but I didn’t tell them that).

With these narratives and arguments swirling around, the students broke into groups to discuss whether or not the nation of immigrants narrative should still be used as the (or a) defining American story. If so, why? If not, what would they replace it with? After all, we’re going to tell ourselves stories about the past. You don’t get to rip up one narrative and offer nothing in return.

What surprised me—though it probably shouldn’t have—was that the large majority of students, especially in the first section, very much wanted to retain the nation of immigrants story. To be clear, I was not bothered by the conclusion. I was concerned that many students were disagreeing with Mamdani without realizing that they were doing so, or knowing why. I was pleased with their disagreement, but I hoped it came with awareness. Did students consider various angles on the question and adopt a deliberate perspective? Or did two weeks of alternative narratives just bounce off? Of course, all of this is shaped by my own failures of teaching. Their lack of understanding is my lack of communicating. I’m learning a lot. I only hope many of the students can say the same.

As students in the first section fought to retain the nation of immigrants narrative, I was struck by how often they spoke of it as inclusive and inspiring, only to quickly hedge their statement with “well” or “but” or “except.” Native Americans don’t exactly fit in this story, they admitted. Most African Americans didn’t come here willingly, they pointed out. But they wanted the narrative anyway. This led me to two takeaways:

First, isn’t history controversial precisely because we want to use it for very different things? Nations want it to establish identity and destiny and patriotism. Individuals want it to affirm their ancestors. Historians may want it to drive an ideological agenda in the present (yes, busted, it’s true!). But more importantly, historians’ desire to understand what happened and why is an agenda in its own right that puts us at odds with other uses of the past. Are the basic assumptions and desires of historians subversive to nation-states? Perhaps.

Second, we come back around to settler colonial theory. From a settler colonial framework, of course we’re having trouble finding a story that is at once inclusive, inspiring, and accurate. These are stories of national identity. And the whole point is that there are other nations within U.S. borders that claim their sovereignty and assert that their relationship to the United States is a colonial one. Why would they want to be conscripted into another nation’s identity myth? They have their own.

This basic recognition in American public life would go part way toward the decolonization Mamdani is talking about. If you’re still wondering what the big deal is, here’s a really nice piece from a Christian historian explaining why he doesn’t say “we’re a nation of immigrants” anymore. My goal was not to bring my students to a predetermined outcome of discarding the immigrant narrative. Rather, if they choose to embrace that narrative, I hope they do so with greater awareness of its implications and the arguments against it. But if I take seriously the notion that these stories are narrations of our own identities, then it’s hardly surprising that they have enormous staying power.

Notes from the Classroom: Are We A Nation of Immigrants?

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This semester I am teaching two sections of a class called Immigration and the American Dream. I didn’t make the title. Most of the students will be freshman and sophomores, and most of them will not be history majors. As I think about what I want this course to be, I’m grappling with the perceptions of immigration and history my students might have as they enter the classroom on the first day. To speak of Immigration and the American Dream is, I think, to conjure images of the Statue of Liberty, of poor huddled masses yearning to be free, of an exceptional nation made up of freedom-loving people from all over the world. It brings to mind a claim that is practically a part of our civic religion: America is a nation of immigrants.

In structuring the course, part of what I’m setting out to do is to help the students think critically about the “nation of immigrants” narrative. Some students may walk into the classroom with this narrative embedded in their thinking as a kind of common sense:

Of course the United States is a nation of immigrants.

I want to provoke students with the possibility that this simple phrase is not so much a statement of historical fact as it is an ideological claim deployed for specific purposes. Many immigrants have come to the United States; that’s true! But to speak of a nation of immigrants is to make a claim about what kind of country the United States is and what it means. It’s a claim about how the United States is different from, and better than, other countries.

Many historians are uncomfortable with immigration as the defining American story because of the obvious groups it appears to leave out: Native Americans and African Americans. Trying to shoehorn these groups into a nation of immigrants narrative is not an adequate solution.

The better approach might be two foreground the encounters and systems that provided the necessary foundation of mass immigration. To try to do that, I am planning to incorporate a significant amount of transnational history and settler colonial theory¹ in the course. Will it work? I don’t know! But it will be an interesting experiment.

A settler colonial framework takes the conquest of Native American lands not as a given, but as the essential and ongoing act of violence that enabled the American experiment. A settler colonial framing better enables us to see that the nation of immigrants was possible because–and only because–of violence and dispossession on an extraordinary scale. Invasion and conquest, enslavement and expropriation, preceded and accompanied migration.

Lorenzo Veracini has theorized a model in which settler colonial states tend to have a “triangular relationship” between settlers, indigenous groups, and “exogenous others.” While settler states often exclude these exogenous groups in various ways, they may also selectively include them over time, allowing them to become, in effect, “probationary settlers.” Precisely because they are imagined as having no prior claim to land, such groups can potentially be incorporated into the settler colonial polity.² For all the discrimination exogenous groups such as Irish and Italians faced, they were always potential settlers.

The Statue of Liberty was dedicated in 1886. It was the beacon that would greet millions of Eastern European “probationary settlers” in the era of mass immigration at the turn of the century. That same year, the United States Army continued its campaign of conquest in the west, attacking Native Americans and seizing the land that some of those probationary settlers would one day occupy. Immigration was not only the familiar flight from European squalor to the shores of American opportunity. It was invasion; it was opportunity for some and dispossession for others.

As students encounter this framework, they can hopefully begin to understand that it is not the way to understand the history of American immigration, but a way to do so. In the process, the nation of immigrants story is not debunked, but is dislodged from its commonsense status. If I’m lucky, students might get a taste of looking at the same event with two sets of glasses, and have an “Aha!” moment as it dawns on them that both sets of glasses help them see something important about the world.

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¹See Patrick Wolfe’s 2001 article, “Land, Labor, and Difference: Elementary Structures of Race,” in the American Historical Review.

²Lorenzo Veracini, Settler Colonialism: A Theoretical Overview (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010).