Four Years Of Doing Activist HistoryRoundup
tags: Donald Trump, Revisionist History, antiracism, Activist history
William Horne, Co-Founder and Editor of The Activist History Review, is an Arthur J. Ennis Postdoctoral Fellow at Villanova University who writes about the relationship of race to labor, freedom, disability, and capitalism in post-Civil War Louisiana. He is a former high school teacher, barista, and warehouse worker and is an avid home gardener. He holds a PhD in History from The George Washington University and can be followed on Twitter at @wihorne.
During a job interview a few years ago, a senior scholar asked me what led me to co-found The Activist History Review, which launched four years ago today. I answered that, in part, we hoped to help Americans understand and reject the racist candidacy and policies of Donald Trump. One of the interviewers let out an audible gasp.
I’ve given a lot of thought to that exchange over subsequent years, both from my perspective as a scholar and as an editor at TAHR. Would the search committee have the same response now, after the Capitol Insurrection? After we saw migrant kids in cages? After the trans and muslim bans? Were the racist birtherism and nativist, authoritarian demagoguery of the campaign acceptable? Or was it simply unseemly that scholars might engage the world around them?
I can’t know for certain the precise cause of the gasp, but I’m all too aware that I transgressed the “civility” norms of academia—that scholars are trained that it is both impolite and bad scholarship to speak and act in overtly political terms. We can hope for particular changes to our world, another senior scholar lectured me years later at the annual meeting of the Southern Historical Association, but we can never work to implement those changes and betray our impartiality. We should only convey “what happened,” I’m told, to the best of our ability. That idea is dangerous and absurd.
Although there are innumerable reasons why the civility approach to academia is inadequate and oppressive, two strike me as especially relevant today.
First, if the rationale—as we often hear—is that keeping “above the fray” of politics insulates academics and protects the profession, I’m afraid I have to report that this approach has utterly failed. Our work is political whether or not we choose to acknowledge that fact because that’s how power works. Writing about anything that matters—race, class, gender, age, ability, ecology—is inherently political and questions the legitimacy of the powerful. We pretend otherwise at our peril. As the infinitely stupid 1776 Report illustrates, white elites find the work we do as educators and intellectuals inherently threatening. They claim that we teach students to “hate one’s country or the world for its inevitable wrongs,” and you can be absolutely certain that Republicans across the country will use the report to limit what, how, and where we can write and teach. Indeed, the ethnic studies ban of the recently upheld Arizona HB2281 and the so-called “Black Identity Extremist” terrorism classification by the FBI already laid the groundwork for precisely such efforts.
Second, failing to address systems of exploitation and abuse, especially for those of us who claim to understand their workings, makes us complicit in their operation. I realize that’s a provocative statement, but it’s the truth. If we actually understand the implications of our research in systems of oppression, how on earth can we sit by, passing off the occasional sassy remark at scholarly conferences as making some kind of difference? And the alternative—that we don’t understand our own work—isn’t better. What we’re left with, in either case, is an “enlightened” intelligentsia class with little care for actual human suffering. That is, at best, a bad look and makes us obviously complicit in the systems we fail to change.