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History Is History

The new president of the American Historical Association has met with the wrath of the woke mob.

Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones discusses her new book, The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story, with Times Executive Editor Kevin Merida
(Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Professor Jim Sweet is a fine historian of Africa. I was happy when he was appointed president of the American Historical Association (AHA). I thought he might restore some sanity to an institution badly in need of it. Sweet was chair of the history department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison for part of the time I was a graduate student there. I know him to be a decent man who takes the study of the past to be a serious and noble vocation.

Alas, any hope of Jim Sweet’s steering the AHA away from the rocks is now lost. Sweet has been cancelled by a Twitter mob for telling the truth about history.

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On August 17, Sweet published a short commentary at the AHA website. It was a thoughtful piece partly about a recent research trip to Africa. Sweet writes, in the context of former AHA president Lynn Hunt’s remarks about “presentism,” of the tendency to view historical events and figures through the lens of today:

In many places, history suffuses everyday life as presentism; America is no exception. We suffer from an overabundance of history, not as method or analysis, but as anachronistic data points for the articulation of competing politics. The consequences of this new history are everywhere. I traveled to Ghana for two months this summer to research and write, and my first assignment was a critical response to The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story for a forthcoming forum in the American Historical Review. Whether or not historians believe that there is anything new in the New York Times project created by Nikole Hannah-Jones, The 1619 Project is a best-selling book that sits at the center of current controversies over how to teach American history. As journalism, the project is powerful and effective, but is it history?

When I first read the newspaper series that preceded the book, I thought of it as a synthesis of a tradition of Black nationalist historiography dating to the 19th century with Ta-Nehisi Coates’s recent call for reparations. The project spoke to the political moment, but I never thought of it primarily as a work of history. Ironically, it was professional historians’ engagement with the work that seemed to lend it historical legitimacy. Then the Pulitzer Center, in partnership with the Times, developed a secondary school curriculum around the project. Local school boards protested characterizations of Washington, Jefferson, and Madison as unpatriotic owners of “forced labor camps.” Conservative lawmakers decided that if this was the history of slavery being taught in schools, the topic shouldn’t be taught at all. For them, challenging the Founders’ position as timeless tribunes of liberty was “racially divisive.” At each of these junctures, history was a zero-sum game of heroes and villains viewed through the prism of contemporary racial identity. It was not an analysis of people’s ideas in their own time, nor a process of change over time.

So far, so good. I don’t quite cotton to Sweet’s characterization of the school-board-level dispute over the 1619 Project, but he is absolutely correct that the 1619 Project is not at all history (as even its creators now admit). It is “presentist” in the extreme. It was always about 2020, not 1619. 

Sweet’s commentary gets even better.

In Ghana, I traveled to Elmina for a wedding. A small seaside fishing village, Elmina was home to one of the largest Atlantic slave-trading depots in West Africa. The morning after the wedding, a small group of us met for breakfast at the hotel. As we waited for several members of our party to show up, a group of African Americans began trickling into the breakfast bar. By the time they all gathered, more than a dozen members of the same family—three generations deep—pulled together the restaurant’s tables to dine. Sitting on the table in front of one of the elders was a dog-eared copy of The 1619 Project.

Later that afternoon, my family and I toured Elmina Castle alongside several Ghanaians, a Dane, and a Jamaican family. Our guide gave a well-rehearsed tour geared toward African Americans. American influence was everywhere, from memorial plaques to wreaths and flowers left on the floors of the castle’s dungeons. Arguably, Elmina Castle is now as much an African American shrine as a Ghanaian archaeological or historical site. As I reflected on breakfast earlier that morning, I could only imagine the affirmation and bonding experienced by the large African American family—through the memorialization of ancestors lost to slavery at Elmina Castle, but also through the story of African American resilience, redemption, and the demand for reparations in The 1619 Project.

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Yes, this is all true, too. And what an insightful and informative piece besides. Sweet is to be thanked for sharing with readers how Elmina, Ghana, is undergoing the same ahistorical pressures to create a lucrative, tourist-friendly narrative as the media-academia-government complex in the United States.

But as I read Sweet’s essay, it was about here that I began to get a bad feeling. Surely, I thought, the good professor is dancing a bit close to the cliff’s edge. He is contextualizing the 1619 Project—fine by me. But I live in Japan, where people who work at universities are still free to speak the truth. Professor Sweet works at the University of Wisconsin, which, as I know from personal experience, is a gulag. So, I thought to myself, look out, Jim. 

He didn’t hear me, apparently. This is what comes next.

Yet as a historian of Africa and the African diaspora, I am troubled by the historical erasures and narrow politics that these narratives convey. Less than one percent of the Africans passing through Elmina arrived in North America. The vast majority went to Brazil and the Caribbean. Should the guide’s story differ for a tour with no African Americans? Likewise, would The 1619 Project tell a different history if it took into consideration that the shipboard kin of Jamestown’s “20. and odd” Africans also went to Mexico, Jamaica, and Bermuda? These are questions of historical interpretation, but present-day political ones follow: Do efforts to claim a usable African American past reify elements of American hegemony and exceptionalism such narratives aim to dismantle?

The Elmina tour guide claimed that “Ghanaians” sent their “servants” into chattel slavery unknowingly. The guide made no reference to warfare or Indigenous slavery, histories that interrupt assumptions of ancestral connection between modern-day Ghanaians and visitors from the diaspora. Similarly, the forthcoming film The Woman King seems to suggest that Dahomey’s female warriors and King Ghezo fought the European slave trade. In fact, they promoted it. Historically accurate rendering of Asante or Dahomean greed and enslavement apparently contradict modern-day political imperatives.

It is here that Jim Sweet stuck his own neck into the noose and trotted out onto the gallows. In Madison, Wisconsin, one does not say that Africans had a hand in slavery. One parrots the 1619 narrative, or else. Poor, sweet, naïve Jim. He should have known better. 

In less time than it takes a women’s studies grad student to switch among the 72 genders, the woke brigade roaming Twitter was on the attack. It was led by one Professor Cate Denial. (Yes, that is her real name.) Professor Denial researches—I am not making this up—“kindness,” though there wasn’t a lot of that in her onslaught. From there it was off to the races. Sweet was to be disciplined and punished. 

To make matters worse for the AHA, people started to chime in from—gasp!—outside the “historical profession.” Unwashed rubes who read only coffee table books on the Civil War piped in to say they thought Sweet’s essay was fine. The 1619 narrative was in grave danger. The AHA then did what “professional historians” at American universities are trained to do: it shut down its comments section, insulted the heretics, and declared debate closed.

It is a classic cancellation, down to the part where the person cancelled is in the right. As far as I can tell, nothing about Professor Sweet’s cancellation had to do with the accuracy of his statements. The fact is that Africans were involved in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. That they were, and that it matters to tell the whole truth about the past, is one of the main points of Professor Sweet’s AHA commentary. Raiders, brokers, traders, ship captains, insurance firms, kings, prime ministers, presidents, local chieftains, the Church of England, the Church of Rome, and many more acquiesced in the hateful business in one way or another. Start to finish, bottom to top, about the only innocent players in the slaving pageant were the slaves.

But this is just what historians in the United States are not allowed to say. Not just this, but this much precisely. The narrative which the media-academic-government complex insists upon is the 1619 fairy tale. You simply are not permitted to state that Africans also had a hand in the slave-trade money machine. Telling the truth about slavery is, somehow, an affront to black people. The utter provincialism and racism of white liberals is on full display.

Jim Sweet is a fine historian, but he’s no warrior. He caved almost immediately to Professor Denial and her witch-hunt. Sweet issued the by-now pro forma grovel just two days later, on August 19, and promised to do better. “I foreclosed this conversation for many members, causing harm to colleagues, the discipline, and the Association.” He told the truth, which caused “harm.”

One of my colleagues in Japan called this unmanly capitulation a “dogeza,” the Japanese word for kowtow. But another colleague pointed out that a dogeza has at least an element of decorum to it. Sweet’s cancellation was pure Stalinism, he countered. Indeed, there’s more than a hint of a Stalinist show trial to all this. Sweet genuflected to the fake narrative, which was the point all along. There was nothing decorous about it.

Professor Sweet’s AHA commentary was partly about the 1619 Project, how it isn’t history. But those of us who don’t even try to run with the campus woke mob in America, and so have no need to lie to one another or to ourselves, knew that already. Were there slaves in Virginia in 1619? Yes. Were there slaves in the Peruvian silver mines in the mid sixteenth century? Yes. Were there slaves in Tenochtitlan before Europeans arrived? Yes. Did the Comanches keep slaves? Yes. Did Native Americans raid other Native American settlements and sell human beings to European slavers? Yes. Did the Greeks and Romans have slaves? Yes. Have human beings been awful to one another since that business between Cain and Abel this side of the garden? Yes. So that’s not it.

What’s important is the main point Sweet made in his piece. The title of Sweet’s commentary is, “Is History History?” I take this to be a clever double entendre. The second “history” here is in both senses of the word, namely, “history” in the sense of an accurate record of the past, and “history” in the sense of toast, kaput, dunzo.

Professor Sweet wasn’t just asking if so-called history can really be called that if we allow myths to creep in. He was also asking if history, as a discipline, is stick-a-fork-in-it over with. In his piece, he brings up falling enrollments in history departments. He points out that those who do remain in the history discipline focus ever more on the here and now, or the very recent past.

This is very true. History enrollments at the undergraduate level have been trending down for years. The numbers are dismal, and getting worse. There is certainly a connection. Why bother studying history when the past is whatever the Twitter demons say it is? Not even worth wasting Dad’s money on that.

But let’s back up just a touch more and ask why even undergrads, who are so gullible that they can be lured into spending hundreds of thousands of dollars of their parents’ retirement savings on useless college degrees in the first place, are steering clear of history departments. Bolivian Lesbian Protest Literature 101 is guaranteed to be standing-room-only. But Central European History 101? South Asian History 101? Latin American History 101? (Sorry: Latinx American History 101.) No dice. Crickets.

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