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.