The American Revolution embodied, despite the misgivings of many of its leaders, some profoundly radical ideas. Rebelling against the world’s most powerful monarchy and replacing its authority with a clutch of homegrown republican governments (of varying effectiveness) was as fundamental a political change as one could imagine in the 1770s and early 1780s. It’s hard to see that from our contemporary vantage point, however; looking backwards through the French and–especially–the Haitian Revolutions, the revolution that created the United States looks tentative, even skittish, by comparison. Yet it’s also evident that the American Revolution and its early republican aftermath fell far short of fulfilling the truly radical potential inherent within the process of declaring independence from Britain and establishing a republic in place of an imperial sovereignty. Most glaringly, the revolutionary rhetoric of liberty and equality was notable more for who it excluded in practice–women, indigenous Americans, people of color both enslaved and free–than anything else.
There will be legions of posts, articles, thinkpieces, and essays this morning and throughout the day wondering how “we” could have gotten everything so wrong, how things came to this, how a majority of the United States electorate chose….that. There will be attempts at scholarly analysis, visceral personal reactions, laments, and entirely too many smug, see you pointy-headed types should have listened to real people screeds.
A little over a week ago, I had the honor of attending the New York Film Festival premiere of 13th, a documentary directed by Ava DuVernay that confronts the issues of race, incarceration, and justice in the United States. As one of the talking heads (a historian’s life goal, to be honest) in the film, I was intellectually aware of the phenomena, statistics, mindsets, and events the film addresses. But it wasn’t until I viewed the film–a relentless, unflinching, prophetic indictment of the structures of racism and inequality upon which our entire society rests–that I truly felt what I had before only known. In the activities that accompanied the premiere–including this historian setting a new standard for awkward walks on the red carpet–a sense of urgency seemed to pervade the proceedings. Yes, there was celebration; 13th is the first documentary to open the NYFF, Ava DuVernay is also the first woman filmmaker of color to earn that distinction, and the film is a Netflix production and will thus have a huge platform for its vitally important story. So celebration was certainly in order. I was proud to participate in those celebrations, and deeply humbled to have been asked to participate in such an urgently powerful work of art. But there was urgency, too. Now that this story is out there, in all of its raw, agonizing, poignant glory, what next? Continue reading “What Is To Be Done”
About a year ago, I was asked if I wanted to be interviewed for a documentary project. Since being a talking head on a documentary is a total Historian Win, I eagerly accepted the invitation. That led to me spending an October afternoon in a Bronx studio, being interviewed by the noted director Ava DuVernay. I’m honored to be a part of DuVernay’s urgent and important documentary, The 13th, which is a powerful, compelling examination of how race, incarceration, and injustice are woven within the very fabric of this country’s history. The 13th will premier this Friday at the New York Film Festival, the first documentary to ever lead that festival. There are a lot of prominent scholars and public figures appearing in the film, and then there’s….me? I’m beyond stoked that I’ll be there this weekend to see the premier and meet others involved in the film (many of whom whose work I admire greatly). I’ll be excited to engage with people in a variety of venues, both this weekend and beyond, and be a part of the crucially important conversations that this film will undoubtedly spark. The 13th will be available on Netflix on October 7. It challenges us to be honest and unblinking in confronting the injustices that have been part and parcel of this country’s history, and I hope its challenge will be accepted by all of us.
I’ll have another post next week that recaps the weekend’s events and reflects on this experience (preview: I am still kind of stunned that I’m a part of all of this. Holy crap.)
Periodization is both the most useful and most obfuscatory tool in the historian’s toolbox. In Western historical writing (and because of the West’s culturally-imperialist tendencies, in many other historiographies as well), we reckon time largely according to the conventions of the Gregorian Calendar: days, months, years on a cycle that mostly matches the Earth’s perambulation around the Sun. Conversely, “Big,” or “Deep” History challenges us to move beyond Puny Human Time and think in terms of (at minimum) geologic time. It’s enough of a struggle to finish our survey courses anywhere near where we’re “supposed” to; the very thought of beginning our studies with, say, the Pleistocene Era is enough to give an instructor palpitations. Within the generally-accepted chronology, then, we’ve carved out our scholarly spaces within a framework so well-established as to be internalized. I’m a nineteenth-century US historian. I do the Cold War. I’m a medievalist. We often interrogate these divisions—when does “modern” begin?—but when it comes to our scholarly autobiographies, we default to the divisions we once criticized. Undergirding this hegemony of the Established Historical Era is the way in which we teach our field. Chronological markers of varying specificity define our courses: Early Modern Europe; US History to 1877; The Vietnam War, 1954-1975. And, as these examples suggest, chronological boundaries are often accompanied by geographic designators. Thus, largely without meaning to, we enclose History into digestible packages. And that’s how we and our audiences—students, readers, each other—tend to consume it. Continue reading “Historical Periodization and the Long Civil War”
Making the rounds on Twitter today was a letter from the University of Chicago (more specifically, the Dean of Students) to the incoming students of the Class of 2020 with the purpose, I guess, of letting them know they were in for a real education. More of a full-on broadside than a welcome letter, the dean let the incoming students know in no uncertain terms, that the University is totally committed to academic freedom and “freedom of expression” from its faculty and students.
In a welcome letter to freshmen, the College made clear that it does not condone safe spaces or trigger warnings: pic.twitter.com/9ep3n0ZbgV
— The Chicago Maroon (@ChicagoMaroon) August 24, 2016
What this means in practice, the letter continues, is that “we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.” And, if you’ve watched students at other campuses, the Dean warns, don’t get any crazy ideas about protesting invited speakers: “we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial.” And, for the love of Milton Friedman, “Our commitment to academic freedom means we do not support so-called ‘trigger warnings.’” WE ARE A MIGHTY RACE OF INTELLECTUAL WARRIORS. Continue reading “Trigger Warning: Elitism, Gatekeeping, and Other Academic Crap”