As nearly 3,000 scholars gathered over the weekend for the annual meeting of the American Historical Association, even the attempts at institutional lightheartedness carried an edge.
On a table in the crowded book exhibition, there was an invitation to vote for a slogan to be emblazoned on future swag, with candidates ranging from the earnestly inspirational (“Study the past to understand the present”) to the slightly unnerving (“Historians: Look Out Behind You!”).
That last one might have seemed unintentionally on the nose, and not just because the spread of legislation restricting teaching on race, gender and other “divisive concepts” has left many educators feeling like they have a target on their backs. In recent months, the association has also been roiled by its own divisive concepts — including what constitutes “good history” to begin with.
Controversy exploded in August, when the association’s president, James H. Sweet, a leading historian of the African diaspora at the University of Wisconsin, published a column in its magazine called “Is History History?,” which lamented a “trend toward presentism” and a troubling politicization of scholarship.
The study of pre-modern history, Sweet wrote, is shrinking, while scholars of all periods increasingly question whether work that doesn’t focus on “contemporary social justice issues” like race, gender and capitalism really matters. “The allure of political relevance, facilitated by social and other media,” he argued, has encouraged “a predictable sameness” that misses the messiness and complexity of the past.
And in the public realm, Sweet (citing the New York Times’s 1619 Project, the recent movie “The Woman King” and the Supreme Court opinion overturning Roe v. Wade) argued that too many on both left and right treat history as “an evidentiary grab bag.”
“We suffer from an overabundance of history,” he wrote, “not as a method of or analysis, but as anachronistic data points for the articulation of competing politics.”
The column provoked a firestorm, which spread along racial and generational fault lines. Many younger historians, consigned to poorly paid adjunct work in a radically shrinking job market, saw the out-of-touch complaints of the privileged. And for many Black scholars, it was an attack on the inherently political traditions of Black studies.