January 2018

Historians Activate!: The Year in Activist History

Our work as historians involves studying prior forms of exploitation, abuse, and inequality. Doing this work, we believe, requires that we struggle against their iterations in the present.

On the day Donald Trump was inaugurated as the 45th President of the United States, The Activist History Review published its first article. The timing wasn’t a coincidence. In the first week following the 2016 election, we began discussing the possibility of creating an online journal devoted to exploring the relationship between history and social change. The events surrounding Donald Trump’s rise demonstrate more clearly than ever the urgency of understanding that relationship.

Trump’s campaign was built on appeals to the fears of white voters who perceived a black president and woman candidate as threats to their influence and comfort in society. Those fears do not exist in a vacuum. They are ever-present reminders that the centuries of accumulated power relations that defined our past continue to define our present. At its founding, the United States was home to a society that empowered wealthy, white men over all others, men who spoke in a language of exclusion echoed in the candidacy of Donald Trump. During his campaign, Trump promised to implement policies dedicated to reasserting white dominance over American events in the wake of the civil rights advances of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. After the election, we determined that, as historians, we needed to share our work more broadly to ensure that Republicans did not, under the banner “make America great again,” reestablish the very forms of oppression we study.

Our work as historians involves studying prior forms of exploitation, abuse, and inequality. Doing this work, we believe, requires that we struggle against their iterations in the present. That requirement has become increasingly evident in the first year of the Trump presidency. In that time, the Trump Administration and Republican-controlled Congress have done their best to shore up the power structures that stifle egalitarian change. In response, we have used TAHR as a platform to discuss the historical roots of contemporary problems. We believe that this work is central to doing history. Analyzing and critiquing prior forms of exploitation like slavery is easy—almost no one supports slavery. Addressing its legacies in present-day white supremacy and inequality is not; but, failing to do so means failing to apply history. It is on this point that we hope to see scholars take more risks and engage openly with the implications of their work.

education deportation
This photo from a 2014 protest in Raleigh embodies our belief that honest, fearless education has the power to transform our society. We are saddened that it remains as relevant today as it did when it was written four years ago. Photo by Stephen Melkisethian.

In our first year, we have worked to uncover the historical foundation of modern inequalities, many of which have begun to metastasize under the policies of the Trump presidency. We also did a great deal of listening to activists, critics, and community members who helped us define our ongoing work. In one of our earliest articles, Tom Foley observed that conservative support for a revival of coal production was motivated more by a desire to expand profits for the ultra-wealthy than it was by a desire to improve American lives. Numerous studies have shown that increased coal production will do little to rejuvenate local economies and will speed the rate of climate change exponentially, while shifting to new forms of energy like solar and wind has been shown to encourage economic development and reduce the impact of human activity on the environment. By resisting transitions to new, more environmentally sustainable forms of energy production, Republicans stifle economic growth and put American lives at risk. That Republican leaders are more than willing to risk the lives of American citizens to achieve their goals has become a familiar refrain over the past year. From articles about the tax code, immigration, and secularism, to issues on mental health, poverty, and white supremacy, we have endeavored to document the connections between past inequalities and the violence enacted by GOP leaders on disenfranchised and marginalized communities in the present day.

Working on The Activist History Review has awakened us to a growing wave of engaged scholarship working to remake history itself as a profession. The number of scholars who have been willing to sacrifice their time and effort to make something that is bigger than the sum of our parts is both humbling and gratifying. Getting to know them and their work in the last year helped us channel the constant, daily stream of outrage and scandal to work towards more lasting goals – empowering communities to eliminate poverty, expand voting rights and engagement, embrace antiracism, deal equitably with indigenous peoples, renounce sexual assault, and demand more from our collective leaders. We hope that, by working towards long term goals rooted in sound history, we have helped frame the discussion in ways that readers found worthwhile and that contributed to a movement towards justice.

We have been inspired by the outpouring of engaged scholarship, which we believe helps lay the foundation for a more just and equitable future. You can find a review of each editorial board member’s favorite articles here. We are also happy to announce the publication of an edited volume based on the work found here at TAHR. Titled Demand the Impossible: Essays in History as Activism and published by Westphalia Press, the volume draws on some of our early essays to offer an overview of what “activist history” is and the many ways of doing it.

We hope that by presenting our collective efforts, both at The Activist History Review online and in Demand the Impossible in print, we contribute to the ongoing discussion about history and its applications. As historians, scholars, and citizens, we believe that we have a responsibility to engage with the most pressing issues facing our nation and our world. We hope you agree.

2 comments on “Historians Activate!: The Year in Activist History

  1. Let us hope that by this time next year, trump’s administration will itself be history.


  2. 23thingsaboutdigitalknowledgepd

    Reblogged this on Digital learning PD Dr Ann Lawless and commented:
    activist historians


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