Why "History Months" Need to Write Groups Back In to the Story

Historians in the News
tags: Black History Month, social history, Womens History Month

How we see the past shapes how we see our present and future — even as our contemporary insights, biases and preoccupations affect our interpretation of what happened before we got here. That’s what makes history controversial. It is inevitably a revisionist enterprise that helps us understand how and why our society has changed.

“In each era, we see the past differently, according to how we see ourselves and our own experiences,” historian Benjamin Carter Hett wrote in his book on the collapse of the Weimar Republic in 1930s Germany. “One era will notice things about the past that another will not. This is one reason why history is, and has to be, constantly rewritten.”

This ongoing revisionism is what leads to “history months” — Black History Month in February is followed by Women’s History Month in March. It also explains why the many fights we’re now having over school curriculums are understandable, even if efforts to censor books and repress ideas are counterproductive to learning and reasoned discussion.

The annual observance of these months is the fruit of egalitarian movements in the 1960s and 1970s that pushed new generations of historians to rebel against the exclusion of whole classes of people from our national story.

Admirers of what was seen as more traditional history grumbled over the lifting up of “race, class and gender” as Black and working-class Americans, women, and immigrants at long last became the subjects of extensive scholarship. Traditionalists asked: What happened to recounting the exploits and achievement of the leading political figures in our history, almost all of whom were White men?

Washington, Adams, Hamilton, Madison, Lincoln and FDR never disappeared — and Lincoln has always been a special figure of fascination. One count made about a decade ago found that some 15,000 books had been written about Lincoln. But it’s true that, for a while, political history lagged behind the new bottom-up social history.

In recent years, political history has made a comeback, but it’s a history far more mindful of the role of Black Americans, women and workers, and far more aware of racism, sexism and elitism.

Read entire article at Washington Post