Blog note: I pitched this idea to another blog earlier this week. At the time, I did not realize the blog’s editors had already covered some of the ground I work through in this post. Rejections are part of the writing game, so I thought I would put it on my blog in case a curious student or someone interested in history came across it.
October 14, 1066. April 9, 1865. December 7, 1941. Hastings. Appomattox. Pearl Harbor.
Dates and names—facts as we like to call them—make up history, or at least that is what pundits of conservative media assert. Standardized testing reinforces this claim. But Hastings was one battle of a prolonged struggle that ended in the Norman conquest of England. Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant, but the American Civil War dragged on for months after that date. Pearl Harbor was one part of a larger saga over who controlled the Pacific.
I tell my students at the beginning of every semester I teach a survey course for the History Department at Mercer University (Macon, GA) that if names and dates were what historians did Google would put us out of business. The majority of the class breathes a sigh of relief since they hate history because of that rote memorization.
To be fair, many historians are good at retaining facts but that is not what we do as a profession. Oddly, it appears that we rarely tell folks what we actually do, except in course settings. We talk to one another—it’s called historiography—but never to general audiences. The reason this matters is that folks with political power and particular agendas about what history really is have taken control of the narrative of what history should be. It is time to speak out.
Recently, I ended up in a Twitter spat with someone who thinks my leftist political leanings (assumed on that person’s part based on my description of what history is) has caused the downfall of American civilization. I knew I had power in the classroom but I didn’t realize how far it went. This person pointed out that most students don’t know the generals of the American Civil War. My experience suggests the person is wrong on two counts: students do know military generals and that is not then most important part of history.
Having grown up on the Confederate military’s northern defenses of Richmond and being a white southerner, I was partial to the history of Robert E. Lee in grade school. I even did a senior undergraduate history project on Douglas Southall Freeman, whose heroes had been Lee and George Washington. He described these men as larger than life figures.
But as I became a practicing historian, I noticed that Freeman’s admiration for the men usually interfered with his judgement about their character. Both men were slave masters. If a historian focuses on military history, there is little need to deal with the moral question of slavery: battlefield tactics tell us about the men. It became clear that Freeman told a particular kind of history, but that story left out other details. By shifting our focus, we may tell different stories.
What I came to appreciate about that spat is that I had entered a culture war battle over how we tell the American story, or as I tell students American stories. Interestingly enough, historians in the earlier part of the twentieth century—we know them as consensus historians—attempted to tell America’s story in a particular arc to show its greatness. By the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s and 1980s, historians started focusing on women and minorities, or how slavery’s economic system fit capitalism more than feudalism. One is not wrong and the other correct because both are attempts at telling history. The moment a student learns how to do this kind of thinking she has become a critical thinker, something employers say they like to see in graduates.
I’ll give two examples of facts from an American survey course on racial constructions. Picking up the detractor’s assertion that students don’t know Civil War generals, all of my students know who Robert E. Lee is. Another fact that is equally compelling is how a group of doctors sponsored by the Federal government monitored a group of African American men who had contracted syphilis for forty years in Macon County, Alabama, to see if the effects of the disease were the same for black and white men. Almost none of my students know about the Tuskegee syphilis study.
Above I have given two facts that are remarkably unrelated until the historian starts to build the case for how pervasive white supremacy was in American history. The mythical R. E. Lee and the Tuskegee study are linked because they show how white Americans viewed black Americans. In the formation of white supremacy outside the use of slavery, white southerners had to convince themselves that white slave owners were good people (wrong on slavery but morally upright people). Are there examples in their writings and deeds that suggest their goodness? Yes, but only if a person ignores all the ways that folks like R. E. Lee tried to exert authority over newly freed people. Historians use this evidence to build a case for understanding the past, not as events but the tissue that connects events together.
But when I show how racial attitudes toward African Americans shaped a sense of inferiority toward them by white Americans regardless of region that did not disappear in the twentieth century but in fact grew in the decades just before the study while statues appear across the American landscape hailing Confederate leaders, white supremacy helps us understand the connection between the two disparate “facts.” Students are often stunned to see how racial construction pervades almost every aspect of American life.
Facts are not history. They are facts (events, people, places, dates) but they don’t tell a story about the past. Historians do that work. We build arguments about the past using that information. We even argue over what those facts mean. Evidence about the past is always changing and so narratives change. The best lessons we can teach students is how to recognize when someone makes a particular interpretative move with those facts.