How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Embrace Presentism

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I’m trained as an early American historian, so I never anticipated that one day I’d teach a current-events course. And yet, in Fall 2017, I debuted a course called “Learning from the Past: Early America in the 21st Century.” New to my department, I had to market an early American studies course that would draw enrollments, and the best method I could think of was to convince students that the early American past had relevance to their lives. In graduate school, some of my professors argued that historians should not engage in presentism—that it would make our work seem dated to future generations of scholars. But our own political moment—I started teaching two weeks after far-right protests converged around Confederate monuments in Charlottesville—felt too urgent not to let our own moment into our discussions of the past. Instead of keeping the present in the subtext of my class, I brought it into the text. Continue reading

Science, Meet Slavery: “River of Dark Dreams” and the Future of Slavery Scholarship

04b0c-johnsonI bet few graduate students these days haven’t read, or at least seen referenced, Walter Johnson’s essay “On Agency.” Published a decade ago, the essay was prompted by what had become hackneyed trope in slavery scholarship. Everyone seemed to ascribe slaves a role in shaping their lives—“agency”—despite the power asymmetries inherent in the slave-master relationship. Johnson famously called for an end to this kind of writing. But one of his subtler points may have been lost amid his overarching argument. It wasn’t that slave agency was unimportant, but that it had lost its contemporary relevance. Finding agency mattered in the Civil Rights Era, the years in which the scholarship flourished, because it bolstered African Americans’ claims on the nation’s past, and thus its future. Continue reading

The Founders, the Tea Party, and the Historical Wing of the “Conservative Entertainment Complex”

Following the recent election, much has been made of the alternative reality created by the “conservative entertainment complex.” However, conservative media has not only created its own contemporary reality; it has also created its own historical reality, through what one might call the historical wing of the conservative entertainment complex.

In recent years, men like David Barton, Bill O’Reilly, and Glenn Beck, among numerous others, have written a number of books on eighteenth-century figures and events. But though they claim to be getting their principles directly from “the founders,” what they are really doing is giving their principles to the founders and the eighteenth century, more generally. This revisionism, promoted by conservative think tanks, was lapped up by hardcore conservatives and perhaps no group of people has been a more receptive audience than those who identify themselves as supporters of the Tea Party. Continue reading