When a White Scholar’s Work is Not Cited: 1619

I don’t need an excuse to talk about the 1619 project. It’s so exciting! Synthetic works like this, which center groups that colonizer-history has marginalized, are notoriously difficult to create, and therefore are deeply impressive. They are also fundamentally exciting and threaten established power structures.

So it wasn’t a huge surprise that some establishment historians felt the need to attack the 1619 project of Nikole Hannah-Jones. Though I’ll admit, I was surprised that Sean Wilentz had to go in for a second attack last week, veiled as a concern, of course. He accuses Hannah-Jones of factual inaccuracy, when many of us historians agree that her claims are plausible and grounded in evidence and existing scholarship…just not the scholarship of Wilentz or his contemporaries. This is because for the story she is telling, he and his contemporaries are largely irrelevant.

The product of these public articles has been really robust conversations among historians, on social media, elsewhere online, and offline, about the stakes of this public debate. There’s one thing I often find missing in these conversations.

Let me quickly drop my own relevant details, since this discussion is all about identity, and none of this is neutral or objective: I’m both a German and US citizen, white, who received my PhD in Atlantic History at an elite Research 1 institution. I also grew up working class, first-gen, a woman, and I read as queer, but none of those things erase my privilege.  My research is in the slave trade, and slavery. At the moment, most (but not all) of the older established scholars of this field at the most prestigious universities are white men, and most of the younger, up and coming thinkers are largely not.

I’ve been going to conferences and publishing in my field for over a decade now. This means I have more than ten years of experience hearing from peers, and seeing how similar arguments at conferences play out.

There is a thing that happens at every academic history conference, regardless of which panels I choose, and which conference it is: without fail, a (usually) older white male scholar from an elite institution will stand up and call out a younger scholar from one or more visibly marginalized groups during their talk, to mention that the younger scholar had not incorporated the suggestions, article, book, or website of the older scholar and/or his peers.

If the younger scholar responds with an apology, or intention to do so, all is well.

If the younger scholar indicates (as politely as possible for such an impolite public call-out) that they will not be doing so because it is at best tangentially relevant to their scholarly interests, a shitstorm occurs.

Many of the older professors want us to believe it is because the younger scholars don’t see the bigger picture, and could be doing harm to the field. Occasionally they are right, but more often than not, there’s something else going on:  the more established professor conflates their contributions to the field with their self-worth, and this means that new takes on the topic that pivot away from theirs make them feel less significant than they are prepared to feel or know how to deal with.

In other words, they are being irrational.

Often these established scholars will make a plea for objectivity.

How can a white male scholar in a white supremacist first-world nation with an entire history built on the enslavement of people with dark skin claim any sort of objectivity?

Objectivity in history is not a thing. Many white men pretend it is, but what they are saying is that they think their lens should be the default lens that all other lenses should emulate. How can a white male scholar in a white supremacist first-world nation with an entire history built on the enslavement of people with dark skin claim any sort of objectivity? We are all part of the living, breathing ramifications of the injustices of the slave trade and of enslavement in the US.

There is no value-neutral position any historian in the US can take.

I have made a career looking at history that is painful to a marginalized population. It is a privilege to be able to read these accounts detailing the objectification of humans of African descent while knowing that it didn’t happen to any of my ancestors. I also don’t suffer the daily indignities and microagressions that come with being a black scholar in the US. It means that I spend less time processing emotions like rage and pain, issues around identity and self, etc. than a scholar who has a more direct connection to this history. It also means that I am questioned less by the public and by students when I outline the extent of racial injustice and terror in this country. My teaching evaluations will often be better than those of my black colleagues will, not because I am a better teacher, but because this reality is easier for white people to hear from another white person (while our demographics are shifting, white people are still the majority in most higher ed classrooms). The comments on teaching evaluations some of my black colleagues have shared with me echo the criticisms levied against 1619.

Your feelings about history are always going to be dependent on your personal relationship to the history. Many white people’s relationships to the history of enslavement are complex, yet incomplete. Most are unexamined, twisted up with guilt, denial, and gaps in knowledge, and in some cases, false narratives that have appeared in textbooks, websites, and spread through memes. It takes a lot of reading, discussion, reflection, and self-work to understand that while the guilt isn’t mine, the responsibility to help illuminate and correct the persisting injustices from that time period is.

I say all this to make this point: Being aware of history causes feelings, because history has shaped the way we are now. While those feelings can hurt, they are ultimately good. They point to what lies unexamined within ourselves, and therefore within society, and to where justice was denied. Wise people lean into that inner guidance and make the discoveries. They pull away when it hurts too much, and come back to it as they can. Unpleasant feelings don’t have to consume or control us.

…unless we deny our feelings and pretend that we are objective. Then they cause us to say all kinds of embarrassing things that show the world that our greatest fear lies not in being blind to and therefore furthering the injustice our nation was built upon, but in becoming irrelevant.

Process-based Goals Create Progress

“But what are you going to do with that?”

Every time I write something, a well-meaning friend asks me that.

It makes sense: audience is key. To help critique someone’s work, it’s best to know who the intended audience is. But implicit in this question of “what are you going to do with that?” are issues of final product. It implies that if you’re going to bother going through the hard work of writing something, then you had better do something with it. I don’t disagree with that notion (though I will say, sometimes writing for its own sake is a worthwhile process), but I do think it can lead to some unhealthy thinking when it comes to writing. Namely, it promotes thinking of your writing in terms of products, and that leads to product-based goals.

We’ve all made those before: I want to write two dissertation chapters this semester. I will have finished my novel by September. I will write an article each month this year.

I used to set goals like that for myself at the end of each year. I’m pretty driven, so I achieved most of them, but when I didn’t, I felt like I let myself down.

So last year, I didn’t make any product-based goals at all. Instead, I switched to process-based goals. Instead of having a goal of x number of pages written, I asked myself if I could make a commitment to show up to the page for an hour 5 days per week. Rather than running that 7 minute mile, I wanted to see if I could commit to physically changing into exercise clothing and moving in some way four times per week. They were very low-stakes goals, great for not provoking anxiety.

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The Best Workout is a Done Workout

The best dissertation is a done dissertation. When you turn it into a book, “Good enough” is good enough. Your work is never finished, it is merely abandoned. Every writer has heard this, and has experienced it. Once you’ve experienced it, you know that it’s true. Fitness works in exactly the same way. Tanya’s last post here was about her fitness goals and inspired me to share with you a bit about how and why I move my body, and why the best workout is a done workout.

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The Role of Public Humanities in Reconciliation

There’s a type of generosity that exists, that causes me to tear up when I see it. It’s the type of generosity of spirit that is so magnanimous that it doesn’t require recognition because it simply is pure generosity for its own sake, and there is no other way it could be described.

Let me back up.

Last week, I attended a roundtable event about the failures of Reconstruction at the Historic Franklin Masonic Hall in Franklin, Tennessee. The roundtable was comprised of three black intellectuals: public historian Dr. Learotha Williams of TSU, documentary filmmaker Frederick Murphy, and the first Director of African American Studies at Nashville’s Belle Meade plantation, Brigette Jones. It was attended by a mixed crowd of all ages and races.

To understand what this means, consider Franklin, TN for a moment. It is in Williamson County, the third-largest slaveholding county in the state. Residents of Williamson County enslaved more people than that of Davidson County, home to the state’s capitol, Nashville. It still is the wealthiest county in the state, and was in the top 10 richest counties in America. Most of that money is old money. Much of it is slave money.

The Masonic Hall itself, alongside most of Franklin’s downtown, was built by the enslaved. You can still see their fingerprints that are impressed in the bricks and mortar if you look closely. For hundreds of years, white masons gathered there to network and increase their wealth. Now, it has become a site of learning about history, dedicated to the stories of black Franklin, which have been kept from the public for so long.

Brochure advertising the event, courtesy of the Historic Franklin Masonic Hall Foundation.

Part of this mission, is reconciliation.

In our current political climate, this is a purposeful and radical decision.

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Does your Digital Humanities Project Have a Mission?

Most of you know that among many of the hats I wear, one of my favorites is director of the Fort Negley Descendants Project, a digital humanities archive of oral histories from the descendants of the enslaved and free blacks who built and defended Nashville’s Civil War Fort Negley. My team of three films the interviews, researches their testimony to find additional resources, edits the footage, uploads it, creates content, and maintains/updates the website which gives you more information about the interviews, as well as information pertaining to the UNESCO Slave Route site of Fort Negley, and its unique role in shaping our nation’s history. We also occasionally put on events and screenings of the videos for the public.

It’s a ton of work, and I love doing this, and feel grateful to be able to do it alongside my job as postdoctoral fellow for Vanderbilt’s school of Arts & Sciences. It’s been humbling to be trusted with people’s family histories, and to hear their pain, share their triumphs, and help amplify their voices in a city whose demographics are rapidly shifting as gentrification pushes black people to its peripheries.

Analyzing the stakes others have in this project has been useful for keeping our team on track and developing its mission. For us, it is has always been most important to collect the histories of people who have gone digging for their own and are ready to share their findings with the world. We want to film and edit these videos in the highest quality, and offer the videos alongside supporting primary sources, secondary reading, and family histories. We want to create lesson plans that expand upon the important historical themes touched on in the videos. We want to preserve all this information, and keep it available for free to everyone.

Often our goals dovetail with the goals and stakes of others. For example, Fort Negley and the Friends of Fort Negley benefit from the project giving human faces and voices to a physical site. Vanderbilt University benefits from increased visibility and interaction with the wider community through my team and I. Some people have politically benefited from descendant voices being amplified in local politics, while others may have had their plans and aspirations thwarted by this same amplification.

To each of them, I would say the same thing: We are here to record, disseminate, and amplify the voices of a group of under-documented and under-heard people whose incredibly rich family histories have shaped our nation. Who do we work for? We work for history and its preservation. We work for a future in which everyone is equally heard, and in which everyone’s history holds equal value to this nation.

Nothing more, and nothing less.

How would you articulate the mission of your Digital Humanities project?

Collaborative Writing in the Humanities: Lessons in Co-Authorship

History is a relatively solitary field. The vast number of articles and books written have just one author, and many historians go their whole careers publishing alone. I don’t mind doing that, but have found the Atlantic World projects I’m most interested in generally require more than one person’s worth of expertise to do well. No one person can cover the scope of the Atlantic World: 4 continents over 4 centuries with primary sources in dozens of languages. So when I find opportunities to collaborate, I jump on them.

I’m pleased to announce that The Historical Journal is going to publish the results of one of these collaborations. It’s a co-authored article entitled “Projections of Desire and Design in Early Modern Caribbean Maps.” This article came out of a collaborative map analysis project funded by the John Carter Brown library’s relatively new Collaborative Cluster fellowship that allowed my partner and I to meet up for two weeks in Providence to analyze maps and plot out an article. After the two weeks, he and I finished the writing together electronically, and we learned a lot about workflow when it comes to collaborative writing and co-authoring in the humanities.

There are a lot of good resources for collaborative writing of all kinds out there, so I don’t need to write just one more. Instead, I’ll leave some more specific lessons learned along the way.

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Subject Matter Expertise: Historians and Documentaries

Last month, I was approached by Joseph Hill, documentary filmmaker, about his current project on the United States Colored Troops (USCT) in the Civil War. He was coming to Nashville to film at Fort Negley, and a few other sites related to enslavement and the USCT and asked if I could serve as a subject matter expert. He interviewed me on camera and asked some incredibly complex and insightful questions. The whole experience was thoughtful and thought-provoking.

Filmmaker Joseph Hill and I in Fort Negley’s archive room, 2019.

This was because he knows his audience, and knows that they enjoy grappling with the complexities and intricacies of history that I live for. Mr. Hill didn’t just want to know about the history of USCT, he wanted to explore it in the context of global enslavement, and why his topic mattered so much in this particular moment in time.

As director of the Fort Negley Descendants Project, I’ve been able to interview two descendants of the USCT, Mr. Gary Burke and Mr. Bill Radcliff, and have gotten to know them over time through the events at Fort Negley that bring us together multiple times per year. We’ve spoken a lot about history, legacy, enslavement, freedom, and race. I bring to the table the historical source material, and they their lived experience and family histories. They have been generous with their observations, and with me when mine have been off. These conversations have been crucial to my own development as a person who shares the history of a topic that has left its mark on the country today. They have helped me understand how to balance what I know, with my own identity and with how I explain what I know, to whom I explain it, and why.

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