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James Grossman Writes Article on Career Diversity: "Revising Revisited: Words Matter When It Comes to Career Diversity"

The late historian James Horton had a knack for provocative vocabulary in public history spaces. When queried about “those revisionist historians” who supposedly invented facts and changed narratives to fit ideological or political agendas, Jim looked his questioner in the eye: “Revisionism happens because new evidence is available and new questions are asked. Would you go to a heart surgeon who isn’t reading revisionist medicine?”

I thought of Professor Horton’s advice recently when I came across a popular and reputable daily history bulletin. Noting the coming anniversary of a Civil War battle, the text made reference to the Confederate and Union armies. Jim had stopped referring to the “Union” army sometime in the 1980s; from then on, it was always “the army of the United States of America” or, simply, “the US Army.” The terminology matters if a historian wants to communicate unambiguously that the Civil War was not a series of battles between two equivalent forces—Union and Confederacy—but a rebellion against the government of the United States to preserve the right of some humans to own the bodies, labor, and progeny of other humans. The terminology matters because vocabulary that suggests otherwise reinforces conventional imagery of heroic cavaliers, gracious hostesses, and the tragedy of fraternal conflict. Subtleties of historiographical disputation are not always irrelevant to public culture and policy.

At the heart of redefining success is a question of agency.

Historians need to write and speak carefully. A single word or phrase, a particularly evocative metaphor, can undermine a nuanced argument pointing in a very different direction. On a recent visit to Pearl Harbor, I noticed references to a “sneak attack”—something attributed to stereotyped Japanese combatants—rather than the “surprise attack” respected in military circles as part of a fight among equals. Though the dramatic near-destruction of the US Pacific fleet constituted a main thread in film and exhibit interpretation on site, I could not find the word “defeat.” Destruction, yes; “defeat,” no. But defeat it surely was. 

Read entire article at AHA Perspectives on History