The Scholar Helping America Grapple with Its Ugly HistoryHistorians in the News
tags: racism, Dylann Roof, Trump, Keisha N Blain
Shock has emerged as the signature emotional response to the organized confusion of the Trump era. The president is at war with the same agents of federal law enforcement investigating his old campaign. Just months after an alt-right rally in Charlottesville ended in death, emboldened white supremacists are littering college campuses with propaganda. And an immigration system that was already broken has been thrown into even more chaos by a White House bent on vindictive, nativist policies.
All that dysfunction—much of it inspired by racially infused hate—is often greeted with incredulity, as if it were extremely unusual or even unprecedented. Keisha Blain knows better.
The author and historian is an ascendant voice highlighting disturbing episodes in America’s past, many of which were previously whitewashed or ignored entirely. The University of Pittsburgh professor co-developed the Charleston Syllabus in 2015 after white supremacist Dylann Roof murdered nine congregants at an historic African American church in the South Carolina city. More recently, she helped craft the Trump Syllabus 2.0—an upgrade of an earlier effort criticized for failing to include perspectives from scholars of color and other marginalized groups—to document the political climate that gave way to the 45th president. Both began as Twitter hashtags but were later fleshed out into books and classroom curricula tracing the roots of racial violence, white supremacy, and bilious politics. Blain also has a new book of her own out this month, Set the World on Fire: Black Nationalist Women and the Global Struggle for Freedom, a text that spotlights the black women who propelled the black nationalist movement of the 20th century.
Blain’s interest in political issues was nurtured early on during her years growing up in the Caribbean and in Brooklyn. But it wasn’t until college that a last-minute decision to take a history class set her life—and career—on an entirely different trajectory. We reached out to the academic for some context for her work correcting historic blind spots, how to make sense of the open racial antagonism emanating from this White House, and how black women have been shaping America's story all along. Here’s what we talked about.
VICE: Americans have a strange relationship with our history, where we’ve kind of grown accustomed to a version of it that’s embarrassingly inaccurate. Take, for example, the sanitized version of Martin Luther King Jr. that most school kids learn about: Most of us were taught MLK was this docile visionary who gave the ultimate feel-good speech, but never that he was a radical anti-capitalist and anti-war activist who really interrogated the concept of whiteness and white privilege. But we’re also starting to see pushback when dubious accounts of history come out, and more people seem willing to evaluate where they grew up with a critical eye. Is America’s vision of its ownpast improving?
Keisha N. Blain: I do think it’s improving. A few events that took place over the past several months have forced people to think about history and its portrayal. Several months ago, there was a strange comment made by [chief of staff John Kelly] from the White House about the Civil War occurring because of an inability to compromise. And many historians immediately responded and wrote op-eds expressing outrage.
But something that was clear, based on comments made by various leaders in the White House and elsewhere, was the need to get history out to the wider public. I came to realize the great work we do never reaches the people we actually want to read our work. So I’m encouraged by the direction we’re taking and the interest people have to know more.
Even today, with things like textbooks, we’re still battling over who and what should be included. And there are generations of Americans who went to school and learned history through a very particular lens—often a very racist lens. In many ways, we’re lagging behind as a nation. ...
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