The Twitterstorians Trying to De-Trumpify American HistoryHistorians in the News
tags: American History, public engagement, twitterstorians
It’s easy to be down on Twitter these days. The platform is overrun by bots and trolls. Its most prominent user has been issuing statements like “I JUST GOT IMPEACHED FOR MAKING A PERFECT PHONE CALL!” But a more optimistic view was on display at a reception that the American Historical Association hosted recently in a conference space at a Sheraton hotel, in Manhattan, as part of its annual gathering. It was a reception for Twitterstorians—historians with Twitter accounts, who have been attracting big followings with their historically informed takes on the dumpster fire that is America in the year 2020. (Bloggers were invited, too.) Attendees snacked on tuna rolls, empanadas, wine, and beer and gossiped about their colleague’s latest tweets. “Did you see Kevin Gannon’s tweet?” someone said, referring to a nineteenth-century American historian with a large Twitter following. “He was sitting next to Cory Booker on the plane ride here!”
Historians do lots of things online. They promote their books, discuss pedagogy, and play nerdy word games. (For example: “FILL IN THE BLANK: A pod of whales. A murder of crows. A __________ of historians.” Replies included “an argument,” a “digression,” and “a contingency.”) A historian named Jason Herbert hosts a ritual called Historians at the Movies, in which Twitterstorians watch a movie and live-tweet it, providing context and commentary. “This past week we watched ‘Malcolm X,’ ” Robin Mitchell, an assistant professor at California State University Channel Islands, said at the Sheraton, where she was sipping wine around a standing table with about five colleagues. “There was a scene where Malcolm X was getting his hair relaxed, and I was, like, ‘Are there any good books about black hair?’ And I immediately got five good book recommendations.” Mitchell, whose Twitter handle is @ParisNoire, created what she calls “the infamous ‘shit happens’ clause,” which her students can invoke to get an extension on an assignment, so they don’t have to lie or come up with a sob story. “I posted about it on Twitter, and I think twenty-two thousand people liked it,” she said. “It’s absurd.”
But Twitterstorians have been preoccupied with more weighty matters in the Trump era, a time when the President and his followers are known for spreading dubious versions of American history. Donald Trump recently wrote, of his impeachment hearings, “More due process was afforded to those accused in the Salem Witch Trials,” which is not strictly accurate. Many Twitterstorians have taken it upon themselves to correct the record. The crowd at the Sheraton mentioned the “rock stars” of social media: Kevin Kruse, at Princeton; Joanne Freeman, at Yale; Heather Cox Richardson, at Boston College. They discussed epic Twitter threads. In December, Nikki Haley claimed that the Confederate flag was about “service and sacrifice and heritage” until the mass murderer Dylann Roof “hijacked” it in the name of racial violence. Kevin Levin, a Civil War historian, responded with photographs showing white mobs brandishing the flag during the civil-rights era, and an engraving depicting the Fort Pillow massacre, when Confederates murdered black Union soldiers after they’d surrendered. “Dylann Roof didn’t ‘hijack’ the meaning of the Confederate flag from these men,” he wrote. “He embraced it.”
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