Black Historians Know There Has Never Been Objectivity in Writing the PastRoundup
tags: historiography, racism, African American history, W.E.B. Dubois, Dunning School
Keisha N. Blain is a professor of Africana studies and history at Brown University and columnist for MSNBC.
In Raoul Peck’s documentary I Am Not Your Negro, writer James Baldwin observes, “History is not the past. History is the present. We carry our history with us. To think otherwise is criminal.” Baldwin’s remarks succinctly capture our relationship to the past. They also address the role of “presentism”—the use of a present lens to interpret the past—within the historical profession.
Historians often use the term “presentism” as a critique—to cast doubt on the objectivity of scholarship from those who consider the present in their analyses of the past. Scholars who resist “presentism” will argue that it somehow distorts the historical narrative. According to this thinking, one should never consider present circumstances when interpreting developments of the past—or when trying to understand figures from the past. To do so is to defy the very essence of the profession, one supposedly based on neutrality.
James H. Sweet, president of the American Historical Association, certainly seems to think so. In an essay titled “Is History History?” in the September issue of Perspectives, the AHA’s monthly magazine, he bemoaned a “trend toward presentism” in historical analysis, rhetorically asking, “If we don’t read the past through the prism of contemporary social justice issues—race, gender, sexuality, nationalism, capitalism—are we doing history that matters?” He later added, “If history is only those stories from the past that confirm current political positions, all manner of political hacks can claim historical expertise. Too many Americans have become accustomed to the idea of history as an evidentiary grab bag to articulate their political positions.”
Sweet’s critique ignited a broad debate about the role of the present in historical analyses. The backlash prompted Sweet to append an apology to his essay, which some on the right saw as caving to the “woke mob.” But as a Black historian who understands the power of my writing and research, there is little to debate. Black historians have long recognized the role of the present in shaping our narratives of the past. We have never had the luxury of writing about the past as though it were divorced from present concerns. The persistence of racism, white supremacy, and racial inequality everywhere in American society makes it impossible to do so.
Historians, like anyone else, exist in the present, and our work will always reflect contemporary realities—explicitly or implicitly. Contrary to popular belief, there is no standard or “neutral” interpretation of the past. The typical standard historical account of the United States, for example, is often distorted into narratives that deemphasize the contributions of people of color and uphold racial stereotypes. This was intentional. Consider the work of historian Ulrich Bonnell Phillips, widely recognized in his lifetime as one of the most influential historians of the South. His 1918 book, American Negro Slavery, was widely read and cited. Yet it offered no “objective” historical analysis. To the contrary, the book only served to perpetuate racist stereotypes about African Americans, and it helped to reinforce segregation and exclusionary laws in the U.S.
Black historians worked to challenge these kinds of accounts during the 1920s. Anna Julia Cooper’s 1924 dissertation in the field of history at the Sorbonne University in Paris directly condemned the institution of slavery. As European nations maintained colonial rule, exploiting millions of people of color across the globe, Cooper wielded her scholarship as a weapon to challenge the global color line.