Tuesday, May 29, 2018

What Is Good History?

Everyone learned at least some history in school, whether it was the cute story about George Washington telling the truth about chopping down a cherry tree, or more advanced studies about politics, economics, and war.

Traditional history has focused on the story of society's elite, the top tier leaders who made history, but there's so much more to history than that.

So what is history, and how should it be told?

Ultimately, history is the interpretation of data. Historians pick and choose which data is of interest, and then they weave together a narrative to explain the data and to show how the data is relevant to the present day.

Good history should be thought-provoking. Good history should stimulate conversation. Good history tackles controversial topics head-on.

I think I was in grad school when I first learned to appreciate the value of studying the lives of ordinary people during ordinary times. At least, that's when I remember having my first real debate about history, with someone who was insistent that the only thing that mattered was the history of war. He was convinced that all accomplishments, advances, and events worth mentioning were directly related to warfare. I, on the other hand, was immersed in material culture studies, learning about the past through the artifacts of daily life, and disagreed wholeheartedly.

My training as a historian has been firmly planted in grassroots history, in history that explores the lives of ordinary people, in history that is directly connected to social justice. Of particular interest to me are the histories that haven't been told, the events and people that weren't considered important in the past, but still shaped our present.


After earning my Master's degree, I wound up back in Connecticut, working at the Mattatuck Museum, which was, at that time, focused on grassroots history. I had the great privilege of working with Jeremy Brecher, who wrote a book on History from Below: How to Uncover and Tell the Story of Your Community, Association, or Union. My approach to history has been shaped by Brecher's tutelage, direct and indirect, over many years.

Brecher's other work includes Brass Valley: The Story of Working People’s Lives and Struggles in an American Industrial Region, published in 1982. Brass Valley was the culmination of a massive oral history project, interviewing people who worked in the brass factories up and down the Naugatuck River Valley. It turned Waterbury's history on its head, ignoring the usual histories of the factory owners, and instead focusing on the histories of the ordinary people whose hard work made the factories a success.

A more recent work by Brecher is a  2018 article on Rosa Parks and current transit equity, published on Savannah Now of the Savannah Morning News.

In his own words, Brecher is "the author of more than a dozen books on labor and social movements. I have written and/or produced more than twenty video documentaries. I have participated in movements for nuclear disarmament, civil rights, peace in Vietnam, international labor rights, global economic justice, accountability for war crimes, climate protection, and many others."

At the Mattatuck Museum and at UConn-Waterbury, I also learned from Peter Marcuse, who was a professor of urban planning at Columbia University and a long-time Waterbury resident. Before becoming a college professor, Marcuse was an attorney involved in the Civil Rights movement. During the summer of 1964, he wrote a series of articles for the Waterbury American newspaper, chronicling his experiences in Jackson, Mississippi. You can download a PDF of the articles from his website.

Other influences on my approach to history include Steven Lubar, whom I first met when I interned at the Smithsonian Museum of American History. He was one of a group of professional advisors we worked with when we reinstalled the permanent history exhibit at the Mattatuck Museum. Also on that advisory committee was Dolores Hayden, Yale professor of urban history; Edward S. Cooke, Jr. Yale professor of American decorative arts; David Montgomery, Yale professor of labor history; and Eric Foner, Columbia professor of U.S. history. Montgomery and Foner are considered to be among the foremost historians in the country. Every member of the advisory panel helped shape my approach to history, especially to Waterbury history, since we received their direct input on that very topic.

Historians and Social Justice

In 2015, the American Historical Association's annual conference focused on the historian and social justice. Some of the takeaways were summarized in an article by Shatha Almutwa:

"Jacqueline Jones argued that historians should not apologize for their historical work, or for their commitment to social justice" and “a keen understanding of history presents solutions to problems” for people today. 

Jones is the author of A Dreadful Deceit: The Myth of Race from the Colonial Era to Obama's America, which was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2014. The book examines racism through the lens of economics. A review in The New York Times, published February 14, 2014, starts with the following summary:

Americans have struggled mightily since the nation’s birth to overcome racial prejudice. Recently, as symbolized by President Obama’s ascendancy and his message of racial reconciliation, we have basically succeeded and are now healing from our racial wounds. Or so the story goes. In “A Dreadful Deceit,” the distinguished historian Jacqueline Jones vehemently rejects this redemptive and self-congratulatory narrative. She believes that the country’s racial problems have little to do with racism and everything to do with economic exploitation. And, she claims, we have not even begun to come to terms with this.

Rewriting History

Eric Foner, the highly esteemed historian, has published numerous articles commenting on controversial contemporary topics as seen through the lens of history. His articles in The Nation have been published as a book of essays, Battles for Freedom: The Use and Abuse of American History.

Foner's work has changed the way that U.S. history is taught and understood. He has highlighted the misinformation that has been perpetuated by history textbooks that either don't talk about certain events or flat-out promote racist propaganda.

During an interview for Jacobin, Summer 2015, Foner reflected on how history gets rewritten to be more palatable:

Instead of denying, like the Right used to, that we've ever had inequality in this country, the Right says, "Well of course slavery was horrible, but we abolished it. We abolished slavery." We! We! Who's this "we," you know?

And then they say, "Jim Crow, it was terrible." No one's defending Jim Crow anymore. We had a great civil rights struggle, Martin Luther King is a hero to everybody left, right and center, but it's a defanged Martin Luther King. Martin Luther King is the guy who gets up at the Lincoln Memorial and, you know, says one sentence — I want my children to be judged by the content of their character — and that's Martin Luther King. You don't get the King who spoke out against the Vietnam War, or the Poor People's Campaign King.

King was a radical guy. King said that the Civil Rights Movement was a fundamental challenge to American values. The people who absorb it into a feel-good thing now say it was an expression of basic American values. In other words, there is a stable thing called Americanism which all these struggles are just improving all the time. 

An excellent article by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Chris Hedges called "The Abuses of History" was published last year in response to the controversy over Confederate monuments. Hedges explores the ways in which some histories distort the truth to support dominant narratives and national myth-making.

The failure by most of the United States’ popular historians and the press to tell stories of oppression and the struggles against it, especially by women, people of color, the working class and the poor, has contributed to the sickening triumphalism and chauvinism that are poisoning our society.
... The historian Carl Becker wrote, “History is what the present chooses to remember about the past.” And as a nation founded on the pillars of genocide, slavery, patriarchy, violent repression of popular movements, savage war crimes committed to expand the empire, and capitalist exploitation, we choose to remember very little.
... Historians are rewarded for buttressing the ruling social structure, producing heavy tomes on the ruling elites—usually powerful white men such as John D. Rockefeller or Theodore Roosevelt—and ignoring the underlying social movements and radicals that have been the true engines of cultural and political change in the United States. Or they retreat into arcane and irrelevant subjects of minor significance, becoming self-appointed specialists of the banal or the trivial.
... Historians who apologize for the power elites, who in essence shun complexity and minimize inconvenient truths, are rewarded and promoted. They receive tenure, large book contracts, generous research grants, lucrative speaking engagements and prizes. Truth tellers, such as Zinn, are marginalized. Friedrich Nietzsche calls this process “creative forgetfulness.”
... Those who challenge these structures, who reach for the impossible, who dare to speak the truth, have been, throughout American history, dismissed as “fanatics.” But, as Foner points out, it is often the “fanatics” who make history. 

Concluding Thoughts

In the past year, I've taken some flack from people who have been angered by my writings on local history topics, specifically my research into Waterbury's whipping post history. Their attacks have questioned my credentials, my integrity, and my ability to write about historical topics. One very angry woman demanded to know my ethnicity, as if that somehow mattered.

The topic reappeared last month when the Mattatuck Museum did a lecture on the subject. More angry men attacked me, and one even said, repeatedly, that I should be fired from my job for what I wrote about the post last year.

Most recently, I've been told that my "uninformed opinions lead [me] to make baseless pronouncements in support of [my] personal bias and penchant for provocation." This is one of the more elegantly worded criticisms I've received, but it boils down to the same basic thing: an accusation that I don't know what I'm doing when I write about historical topics.

I never expected to be attacked or insulted for my explorations of Waterbury history. Nearly a year after the whipping post drama, people are still angry at me for what I wrote. And yet, no matter how many times I re-read my essay, I can't find anything in it that could be construed as uninformed opinions, baseless pronouncements, bias, or a penchant for provocation. I see nothing that should be controversial or inflammatory, nothing that should spark the level of outrage and venom that has come my way.

All I wrote is that it is possible that slaves were whipped on Waterbury's whipping post during the 1700s, that a pair of newspaper articles published in 1890 and 1943 claimed that the old signpost on the Green was the same post that was used as a whipping post, and that there's a square post in the middle that might be original to the 1700s post. If you haven't read what I wrote, you can find it here. It's mostly just a dull litany of factual information, followed by connecting some dots, followed by musings on modern-day racism.

The history work that I do is in a well-established tradition. I've been told by professional historians that I do it well. I intend to keep doing it. The challenge is to keep my head up when I'm attacked. That's what this blog post is really about: reminding myself that I am not alone and that there is value to what I am doing.

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