February 2019

What Does it Mean to Be an Activist Historian?: A Roundtable with the Editors

"I see my duty as an activist-historian to also uplift the voices of other activist-historians who may not be traditional historians, but are doing essential historical work, by highlighting their historical-activism on any platform available and joining them in direct action whenever possible."

Editors’ Round Table on Activist History

In this roundtable-style conversation, the longstanding editors at The Activist History Review and its newest members discuss “activist history,” what it means to be an activist historian.

MB (Michael T. Barry Jr.): What is activist history and why do we do it?

CJY (Cory James Young): When Will asked me to write the conclusion to our edited volume, Demand the Impossible, two years ago, I had to think deeply about this question. I ended up proposing a typology that identified four kinds of activist history: histories of activists, histories for activists, histories inspired by activists, and histories that are activist. Of course these categories blur, but they are a reminder that “activist history” is itself a broad category (we want to make space for a diversity of approaches, after all!).

Perhaps my favorite kind of activist history—one I’m not sure fits neatly into my own schema—is any kind of constructive public history project that makes our present landscape better reflect our past. After Trump won the presidency, I contacted the Arlington County Board of Historic Preservation to see what I would have to do to erect a historical marker to the men and women who in 1960 launched the sit-in movement in the Northern Virginia neighborhood where I was living at the time. To my delight, the board was already in the planning phases of just such a project, and so I turned over my research to the committee. A year and a half later the board unveiled the historical marker; passersbys can now learn about Cherrydale’s activist history.

From left to right: Joan Trumpauer Mulholland, Dion Diamond, and Ethelene Crockett at the unveiling of the historic marker in Cherrydale, Arlington, VA, on 9 June 2018. Photos courtesy of Cory James Young.

MB: Thanks for getting things started Cory and great work! How does everyone else understand ‘activist history’?

ZM (Zoie McNeill): I conceptualize ‘activist history’ as an inherently political position. My opinion is that academia, and scholarly research, is integral to social movements, institutional critique, and advocacy. It is an action—praxis.  Think, Howard Zinn.

I majored in history in college where I realized that the role of undergraduate history courses was to unlearn the myths and American exceptionalism fed to us in primary, middle, and high school. I was finally rewarded for my trait of incessantly questioning everything. I was especially captivated by intellectual history—what philosophers inspired my political stances, what fake narratives about the Civil War was I taught, and who is included in the word ‘American’ when Bush’s administration used it.  For me, being an activist historian is balancing both of those words.

My identity as an activist influences what I choose to study as a historical scholar. My research thus far has been analyzing what tactics celebrated rights movements, like the suffrage or LGBT movements, used to gain power, why certain figures are remembered while others are eclipsed, how the mythology of these social movements are constructed, and how they are utilized in the political narratives and popular memory of today. So far, I found that these groups either consciously used white supremacist tactics to appropriate into the structure of power or valued white lives over the needs of the most marginalized of their communities.

This understanding about structures of power has pushed me to evaluate my own positionality and what spaces I inhabit and take up. Because of this, I’ve moved towards a research focus that I can personally speak to—existing as a queer person in Appalachia. As a white person, even if I attempt to write to and critique white audiences and communities of which I belong, I feel like a (QT)BPOC should have that opportunity instead. Let’s just say that I wouldn’t speak at a conference on black social movements and that I would not accept a position in a department where a (QT)BPOC should be instead. I also attempt to prioritize (QT)BPOC voices in the anthologies that I edit, the zines that I organize, and, especially, in my citations.

However, my background as a historian also informs my activism. Reading scholars who engage in black feminist thought and queer of color critique has pushed me to pay reparations and offer direct action when I am able. My research on ecofeminism has inspired me to fight for eco-justice, animal welfare, and food sovereignty. My work on queer theory has connected me with amazing groups like No Justice No Pride and the Black Pride 4. My passion to reclaim my queer Appalachian existence is personally influenced by the theory of queer ecologies and Mel Chen’s research on toxicity.

Both of these words—‘activist’ and ‘historian—’ inform each other. I could not be one without the other.

AB (Alyssa Bowen): Yes, I completely agree with Zoie that “activist” and “historian” inform each other.

I think what it means to be a “historian” or to “do history” is often too narrowly defined and my definition of historian has certainly been shaped by my activist work. I have seen that activists, often without PhDs and sometimes without any higher education at all, have historically and continue to make, interpret, and “do” historical work.

Photo of activists protesting “Silent Sam” at UNC. Creative Commons attribution.

To use a local example, anti-racists in the UNC community have been working to inform the public about Silent Sam, the statue on campus dedicated to Confederate soldiers, and its white supremacist origins since 1968. These historian-activists have done exceptional historical work—at different times centering the voices of UNC campus workers and other community members who experienced the racism every day that Silent Sam embodied, contextualizing the statue and the white supremacists who funded and dedicated it, and struggling to make these historical realities known to the broader public. Contextualizing, interpreting, and publicizing history—these are all jobs of the historian. But because these historians do not always have a PhD and the methods of history that they “do” are not accepted by the historical community or academia (i.e. they would not get you tenure) they are valued less and considered less legitimate in our society.

Because of this, I think writing about the “history of activism” as an activist-historian is a good start. But I see my duty as an activist-historian to also uplift the voices of other activist-historians who may not be traditional historians, but are doing essential historical work, by highlighting their historical-activism on any platform available and joining them in direct action whenever possible.

I think uplifting activist-historical work will become increasingly necessary and important as the neoliberal university model has pushed so many would-be historians into precarious, untenured work. But in the case of Silent Sam, many historian activists have been campus workers, graduate student workers, and members of the broader NC community. By uplifting and joining these non-traditional historians in the direct actions that rely on historical interpretation, I am advocating for being not just an activist historian, but a historian activist.

William Horne (WH): Comrades! I’ve enjoyed this conversation! It’s so inspiring to work with such brilliant and committed people.

Alyssa’s activist work identifies the relationship between the historical imaginary and white supremacist oppression. The existing power structure has coalesced around Silent Sam and other white supremacist idols, not because these statues offer anything in particular, but because they support a lie about our past, present, and future. And the antidote to this poison, as Alyssa points out, is a sweeping people’s history that upends these lies and paints a bold picture of a future belonging to us all. This, for me, is the core of activist history and what makes it absolutely necessary.

MB: Thank you for the responses editors! I’m sure the readers will greatly enjoy these insights.

My journey as an activist historian began in an undergraduate course on the Civil Rights Movement with Dr. Michael R. West. Specifically, I was moved by the life, words, and actions of El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz (Malcolm X). I spent most of my undergraduate career studying Malcolm and I continue to study his life to this day, working with my advisor, Dr. Ibram X. Kendi on our course “Malcolm X and Human Rights.” Overall, what struck me most about Malcolm was his authenticity, as he continued to critique everyone and everything in America, including himself.

One day while researching for my undergraduate thesis, I came across a quote from Malcolm, where he states, “I want to be remembered as someone who was sincere. Even if I made mistakes, they were made in sincerity. ” As others have stated above, I believe the historian is intrinsically tied to the person, especially the activist historian. The so-called “objective” historian strikes me as “insincere” as it attempts to separate the individual from their work, which is truly impossible. It is a fallacy. We all have our own backgrounds, beliefs, and politics. Therefore, like Malcolm, we should accept, admit, critique, and include these backgrounds, beliefs, and politics in our work.

An activist historian looks at the world around them and incorporates it into their work. Like Malcolm, they sincerely strive to right the wrongs of history and create a better, more egalitarian world. The activist historian is not static, they are ever-changing. While exploring their topic of interest, they must look at themselves in the mirror and ask tough questions, like “why do I do this work?” “How does this work help others?” “Who am I and how does my voice inform dialogues?” “Where have I and others fallen short?” and “What more can be done?”

Because my passion for activist history started with Malcolm, I strive to work and act with his example in mind. In order to effectively critique and change our world, an activist historian must be “sincere.” This is one of the major reasons I choose to conduct much of my work in documentary film. The written word is fantastic, but something is lost. Through video, individuals can tell their own stories, with their own tone, inflection, and expression, the closest to their “sincerest” self a historian can capture. To me, this is another element of the activist historians’ work, finding innovative ways to incorporate public, collaborative history into their work, histories that honor those included as their most authentic selves.

From left to right: Michael T. Barry Jr. interviews Vietnam veteran, activist, and writer Susan O’Neill in Brooklyn, NY. Photo courtesy of Michael T. Barry Jr.

MB: Now that we’ve heard from the new editors, do we have any more thoughts from some of our longstanding editors?

WH: I am often asked why I choose to “be political” with history. I get this question most from family, friends, and acquaintances, but also from fellow historians. I understand the sentiment, but the question itself is backwards. My scholarly work makes me “political” because I take the implications of my work seriously. If it is true that life in the U.S. has been defined by systems of oppression, and that contemporary inequalities are expressions of that oppression, then it would be immoral of me to be disengaged from the political struggles of my time.

Part of this formulation of activist history as an applied, empirical radicalism is rooted in my own past as a conservative. I’ve long meant to write more about this, but haven’t found quite the right moment. Up until 2006, I was a self-described libertarian and, in retrospect, an oblivious, privileged racist. One of the key figures who pulled me back from that void during my undergraduate study was Dr. Angel Adams Parham. Her instruction was equal parts rigorous and challenging, and with impressive patience, Dr. Parham exposed me to new ways of understanding systemic oppression. So for me, learning new things has led me to dramatically change how I view and engage the world around me. I want to offer that same “red pill” to others — to give them a chance to understand oppression and embrace liberation.

History is a story we tell ourselves about our past, present, and future. More than any other discipline, it allows us to organize to create egalitarian change. As Mao put it in his “Reform Our Study,” European imperialists were empowered in China because “very few really know the history of the Communist Party of China and the history of China in the hundred years since the Opium War.” Popular awareness of European exploitation of China was crucial to mobilizing against the capitalisms of empire for Mao. As I’ve argued, the same might be said of racial capitalism in the United States. History has long served elite designs in our country, helping to explain and sustain injustice in the present by hiding its production in the past. We should change that.

AM (Andreas Meyris): This question has me thinking in a very long and meandering way about the role of historians in public life: how should we combat the harmful mistruths of history that propel white supremacy, enforce patriarchy, and paint any efforts toward economic equality with the crimson swath of “socialism?”

I have heard several journalists and historians say that “fake news,” and its natural sidekick, “fake history,” exploded in recent years because of broadcast deregulation and the internet. That before the proliferation of news sites, the more or less limited number of media outlets created a mostly consistent view of the United States, past and present. There were, of course, political differences, these pundits argue, but no one disputed “the facts.” This untethering from a basic understanding of “truth” is what supposedly led to our current schism and political climate of fear, racism, and distrust that also animates our robber baron economy. 

This notion is, generously, wishful thinking. During the 1950s, H.L. Hunt, a Texas oil billionaire, self-funded a publication called Facts Forum. This media outlet, which popularized theories that FDR allowed the Japanese to attack Pearl Harbor to drag the country into a “globalist” war, reached thousands with its newsletter and perhaps millions with its radio broadcast. The John Birch Society likewise reached untold numbers by assuring its members that civil rights and social security were sure signs of a communist takeover. Millions more heard similar messages from nationally renowned ministers like Jerry Falwell. One can draw a neat line from this rightwing propaganda of the early Cold War and contemporary distributors of misleading and harmful history like Dinesh D’Souza.

My point in all this is to say that activist historians have an obligation not to return to some non-existent past where our discipline entertained the trust of millions, or to find some “objective” way of presenting the past, but to finally end our isolation and make powerful changes. A few years ago, historians Jo Guldi and David Armitage published the deliberately provocative History Manifesto. In this work, the authors argue that historians need to return to asking broad long term questions and abandon micro histories. Not only is their argument flawed, but their premise is too. For historians, there should be no return to anything in our discipline. Activist history means making historical knowledge and methodology as widely available and accessible as possible. It is not about finding the one solution to making history relevant, but how many we can find. One reason so many Americans traffic in harmful history is that historians have yet to make our discipline as democratic as it should be.  The job of activist historians is to turn this around.

The Activist History Review has and will continue to democratize history, whether by shedding light on neglected topics, pushing for inclusive academic departments, reviewing popular tv shows and movies, discussing material culture and museum work, or by designing historical assignments for primary and secondary students. We should bring history into every classroom, but also talk about the past at town hall meetings, union drives, political campaigns, public commemorations, and wherever people gather. This is how we can use our discipline to push for equality, justice, and safety for everyone.   

MB: I think that is a great place to end our discussion, with the future of The Activist History Review in mind and what can hopefully be achieved! Thank you all for your contributions. It is a pleasure to begin working with you all.

4 comments on “What Does it Mean to Be an Activist Historian?: A Roundtable with the Editors

  1. 23thingsaboutdigitalknowledgepd

    Thank you for beautiful inspiration and shimmery words.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. 23thingsaboutdigitalknowledgepd

    Reblogged this on Digital learning PD Dr Ann Lawless and commented:
    shimmers me timbres


  3. Pingback: Activism and Our Day Jobs – NiCHE

  4. Pingback: Activist Scholarship, #BlackTransLivesMatter, and Consistent Anti-Oppression – The Activist History Review

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