The Sparks of Hope in the Past

Welcome to our textbook. This is a collaborative project that involves many authors bringing their own perspectives and approaches to their individual chapters, but with a common goal of presenting you with a different type of history than you are used to encountering. We will do this by looking at the history of the modern world through the lens of anti-racism, equity, and social justice. These are important concepts but ones that are vulnerable to becoming mere buzzwords spouted by overmatched corporate middle managers. To keep that from happening here, I will examine those concepts and describe what a history that truly engages with anti-racism, equity, and social justice should look like. Before getting to that it is important to first establish some of the ways that historical narratives have been used, in ways large and small, to support the existing power relations in our society. I will suggest that it does not have to be that way and we can make choices to produce a better kind of history. To end, I will offer some suggestions for a better way forward for teaching, writing, and thinking about our collective human past. Lastly, it is worth noting that the work we are doing here does not represent an endpoint, but a start of a complex process of reckoning that history as a discipline must undergo. Whether we do so quickly or more slowly, it is imperative that we move forward towards a goal of a history that is truly anti-racist, equitable, and based on ideals of social-justice. 

HIstory Involves Choices

The scholar Hayden White once said “lives are lived, stories are told.” The Haitian anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot made a similar point to White when he noted that “human beings participate in history both as actors and as narrators.” The two scholars were both emphasizing that there is a gulf between, to use Trouillot’s words, “what happened and that which is said to have happened.” The story we tell about what happened is what we call the narrative, and creating it involves all sorts of choices: what do we include and what do we exclude? Which person or people do we focus on? Is the story funny, inspiring, triumphant, or tragic? Where do we begin the story and where do we end it? These sorts of choices are necessary whether we are telling a friend about our day, recounting our life story, or presenting a history of the modern world. Whether I decide to tell a friend about my day by emphasizing a few weird things that happened to me even though most of what happened was perfectly ordinary is a relatively harmless decision. The choices we make about the historical narratives we tell are far less so. That is why we must be clear about how and why we make our choices instead of continuing to pretend to be narrators of some objective history. Once we acknowledge that history is not simply an account of “what happened” further questions become necessary: who determined that this was the version of the narrative that should be told? Why are we focusing on this group of people and not another? How come the narrative is being told as a triumph when from another perspective it seems to be a tragedy? Historical narratives are not neutral or objective, in other words. They were constructed by particular people at particular times, based around a particular set of ideas about the world, and often reflect the existing social and political order. That is why it is so necessary for historians to interrogate the stories we tell so that we do not end up passing on versions of these stories burdened by the baggage of racism, nationalism, and imperialism. 

Anti-Racism, Equity, and History

In 1900, at the 1st Pan-African Congress, W.E.B. Du Bois stated that, “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line.” Racism, in other words, was deeply embedded in the world order of his time and it stood in the way of any attempts to create a better, fairer, more just global society. Decades into the 21st century some things have improved in this regard, but the problem of the color line has still not been solved. In a simpler world, the challenge of racism could be dealt with by each of us deciding not to be racist. However, racism is not actually just an issue of individuals which can then be solved through a choice to not have racial views or engage in racist actions. That is why an anti-racism perspective is necessary.  Anti-racism begins from the understanding that racism is a structural and systemic issue that can only be fixed by actively identifying and opposing those structures and systems. In the context of this textbook, that means, on the one hand, examining the history of how the system formed and, on the other, doing our best to be clear and direct in addressing the insidious ways that racist assumptions have infiltrated our sense of the past. Explicit racism is very rare in contemporary scholarship. Yet, there are many ways in which 19th and 20th century racial assumptions still pervade the popular understanding of history. Just as one example, we can think of the way that notions of freedom and liberty so often get discussed as Enlightenment concepts developed by white political thinkers in Europe and the Americas. The abolition of slavery itself is then chocked up to a vote in Parliament, battlefield victories won by Simón Bolívar or Ulysses S. Grant, or the work of the “Great Emancipator”, Abraham Lincoln. This is not to say these institutions and individuals were unimportant, but that emphasizing their efforts crowds out the work, struggle, and sacrifice of enslaved people themselves. One need only count the number of rebellions and the many independent communities formed by escaped slaves, examine the infrastructure of policing and surveillance needed to maintain the forced labor camps that the traditional narrative calls plantations, observe the physical geography of slave ships necessitated by the constant fear of uprising, or note the prevalence of runaway slave ads in colonial newspapers to see that for enslaved people freedom and liberty were not abstract concepts to be discussed in salons or coffeehouses, but basic necessities that not even the most oppressive labor system ever devised could keep them from pursuing. Anti-racism requires that we center the very people whose freedom and basic humanity were at stake instead of keeping them as minor characters in their own liberation. Only by doing so can we combat the racist notion that historical change, development, and progress were the sole provenance of white civilization. 

The concept of equity differs from the idea of equality. Equity refers to fairness and justice as opposed to equality which is about treating everyone the same. The production of this textbook, for instance, has been animated by a number of principles. Key among these is simply the notion that there can be no equity in education when some students can purchase their materials as an afterthought while others must plan and save and sacrifice to afford theirs. In other words, to charge everyone the same price for a book is to treat them equally, but not equitably. Of course, the equity element of this text is not just about cost, it is about the material itself. In response to the eurocentrism that had been so built into the curriculum, there has been an effort over the last few decades to increase the diversity of people and places discussed in a world history class. A typical World History textbook now provides much more content and coverage of Africa, Asia, the Americas outside the United States, and the Pacific. However, better representation alone does not result in an equitable history. In the context of World History this means that when we broaden our narrative to include more people, we must do so in a way that does not just relegate them to side characters in a story that is still largely told about Europeans. Just as importantly, we must be careful not to universalize the European experience so that all the world’s people end up being judged according to what is actually a very particular set of norms, standards, assumptions, and logic. Doing so leads to the assumption that the only path forward for every society is to follow or mimic the Western historical path. The pressure societies were put under to transform themselves along the Western model (what we call “westernization”) could be profoundly distressing. So distressing, in fact, that in 1963 the Iranian intellectual Jalal al-I Ahmad likened it to a disease, “a plague from the West”, that he called Occidentosis. Its key symptom was its ability to turn its victims into unthinking imitators: “…we marry just like the Westerners. We pretend to be free just like them. We sort the world into good and bad just like them. We write like them. Night and day are night and day when they confirm it.” What Ahmad was describing was the trauma of experiencing a world where one’s own culture and values were worthless in comparison to those of the “superior” Western civilization. A world in which one’s past was a prison, and that westernization and modernization offered the only key to escape. Presenting history equitably means taking the advice of the Maori historian Madie Williams when she noted that, “[t]he real challenge of global history is to write from other perspectives, not write about other places from your own particular worldview.” Greater representation is a start, but equitable history requires that it is accompanied by other perspectives as well.  

History and Social Justice

Williams’ point about perspective is an important one and also feeds into a larger theme about social justice. In an interview with Gary Younge in The Guardian, the late Uruguayan journalist and author Eduardo Galeano confessed that his, “…great fear is that we are all suffering from amnesia.” When Younge asked who was responsible for this forgetfulness Galeano responded:

“It’s not a person…It’s a system of power that is always deciding in the name of humanity who deserves to be remembered and who deserves to be forgotten … We are much more than we are told. We are much more beautiful.”

It is not difficult to present World History in a way the obscures the beauty that Galeano was referring to. It can seem that no matter the time or the place we see the same catalog of calamities: wars and massacres, selfishness and greed, cruelty and suffering. It is largely for this reason that the great Indian anti-imperialist Mohandas Gandhi despised history as a discipline: “History is really a record of every interruption of the even working of the force of love or of the soul…a record of an interruption of the course of nature. Soul-force, being natural, is not in history.” His point that recorded history mostly seems to pay attention to moments of disruption is a valid critique, yet if we fully accepted it, we would not have dedicated ourselves to this project. Interestingly Gandhi and Galeano both recognized something similar about the practice of history: that the kinds of stories we tell about the past influence the way we think about who and what we are in the present. Where the two diverged, however, is that while Gandhi thought that history was only capable of telling stories about “interruptions of the course of nature,” Galeano believed that a better kind of history was possible if we dedicate ourselves to remembering what the system of power would rather we forget. History can be and has been a tool of the status quo, but it can also be employed in pursuit of social justice. 

What Galeano understood was that the production of history requires making choices about how we want to represent the past. There are countless stories that could be told and innumerable different ways to tell those stories. Thus, when I as a historian make a choice about what story to tell and how to tell it, I am signaling what I find important and what I believe my students should understand. In the mid-19th century, however, when history first emerged as an academic discipline, century most of its practitioners would deny that who they were as people determined how they practiced history. These early generations of historians, who were predominantly white and male, liked to imagine that their work was neutral, objective, and apolitical. By the 1960’s, however, the assumption that the study of the past was a scientific pursuit of truth started to be challenged by a new cohort of historians. Social changes during the decade had helped crack open the doors of history departments just enough to allow in larger numbers of women, people of color, and scholars from outside Europe and the English-speaking world. While still underrepresented and still subject to various forms of discrimination, such scholars brought a new perspective that led them to ask different kinds of questions and which challenged the conceits of traditional historical practice. Was the exclusion of women from the dominant narratives a neutral position or a reflection of the fact that most male historians had little interest in exploring the spaces where women had been most present? Were the lives and exploits of white men objectively more significant than anyone else’s or were these just the people with whom white male historians most identified? Was it really apolitical to present the history of the United States or Western Civilization in terms of “the march of liberty” or was this just a handy way to suggest that enslavement, imperialism, exploitation, and violence were just errors on the oath of progress rather than constitutive features of the system? 

Questions such as these helped to highlight the fact that the dominant historical narratives that came out of traditional scholarship were, in fact, influenced by the perspectives, values, interests, and identities of those who produced them. The difference between the old guard and the new generation of historians was that the former denied having any perspective other than pursuit of truth, while the latter acknowledged and embraced the idea that who we are influences what we write. This point was not appreciated by many historians at the time and there were (and continue to be) frequent written defenses of what they saw as “neutrality and objectivity.” In one of the most disgraceful examples of this pushback, in 1968 Thomas A. Bailey, president of the Organization of American Historians (OAH), would complain in the pages of a major historical journal that the struggle for recognition by African Americans was a danger to the discipline of history. He wrote: “Pressure-group history of any kind is deplorable, especially…when significant white men are bumped out to make room for much less significant black men in the interests of social harmony.” This is, if nothing else, a revealing statement. The assumption behind Bailey’s argument is that a neutral, apolitical, and objective history would necessarily focus on white men since whiteness was the norm against which everyone else was judged. Conversely, the attempt by African American scholars, for instance, to write a more inclusive history, one in which Black folks were more than just bit players in someone else’s story, was assumed to represent the insertion of politics and identity where it did not belong.

Thankfully, despite his whimpering, the kind of scholarship Bailey deplored — those written about and often by women, people of color, BIPOC, LGBTQ+, and other marginalized groups – would be published in greater quantities and receive greater attention in the decades to follow. Yet, we continue to hear complaints in certain quarters that the replacement of truth and objectivity with what they call “identity politics” is ruining the discipline. One of the clearest responses to this sort of argument was expressed by the historian Robin D.G. Kelley in an interview in the Los Angeles Times. When asked how he could pursue truth while also pursuing a politics of liberation he responded:  

…it’s really important for me to be engaged in these movements [for social justice], to make no pretense about some kind of dispassionate, detached objectivity…Objectivity is a false stance. I’m not neutral. I’ve never been neutral. I write about struggles and social movements because I actually don’t think the world is right and something needs to change.

It is hard to stress how atypical this sentiment is from Kelley. He is saying that historians do not have to pretend to be neutral observers standing above the fray. Instead, we need to acknowledge our place in the world, think about the things that aren’t right about it, look for the historical basis of those problems, and articulate what a better world can look like. Conversely, when history is told as a triumphalist tale of progress it leaves us fundamentally unprepared to deal with the world as it is or imagine a brighter future.

History and Power

The old cliché is that history is written by the victors, but a more accurate version of this idea, as expressed by the Haitian scholar Michel-Ralph Trouillot, is that “history is the fruit of power.” Power, in other words, determines which of the many possible narratives about an historical event actually get told. To illustrate this let’s look at the signature event of the 20th century: World War II. 

During that conflict the United States and the Soviet Union were allies and both contributed to the ultimate victory over Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. Yet, histories produced in the two countries after the war narrated the events in a dramatically different fashion. How could two participants, indeed partners, in the same conflict produce such distinct and, in many ways, contradictory accounts? Why didn’t Soviet narratives influence American understandings of the war and vice versa? The answer to both these questions is that providing a factual accounting of events was never the sole, or even the most significant purpose, of the narratives. Instead, the histories were told as a series of facts that could be put together to carry a message that was useful to the power structure. Soviet histories referred to WWII as the Great Patriotic War. A war in which a brutal and unforeseeable Nazi invasion was resisted only through the collective bravery, strength, character, and sacrifice of the Soviet people. In the end, it was because of these heroic efforts by the Soviets that humanity was rescued from the evils of Hitler and fascism. The United States was a more open society with less centralized control over the production of history, but even given the greater diversity of American narratives of the war, those narratives still tended to follow similar beats. American histories concluded with a similar lesson as that of the Soviets except with the U.S. stepping into the role as the savior of the world. 

The problem with these narratives is not their lack of facts, nor that they are untrue, but that in their very nature they are about selecting certain facts over other facts and particular perspectives over multiple perspectives. The Soviet story seems much more heroic if we begin it in June 1941 when the Nazi invasion began and not August 1939 when the non-aggression pact between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany was signed. Similarly, the righteousness of the United States seems greatest if we focus, for instance, on American troops liberating Nazi concentration camps in 1945 and less so if we ask why 937 Jewish refugees were denied entry to the country in June 1939 (most of whom ended up dying in those same concentration camps), why the military that fought in Europe and Asia was segregated, why Japanese-Americans faced internment, or why Japanese and German civilians were seen as suitable targets for American bombs. In an even broader sense, the story of the Second World War looks very different when we extend the timeline beyond the 1930’s and beyond the European perspective. Doing that uncovers a lot of truths that the national narratives, would prefer remained hidden. That is because such a timeline would reveal that the evil of Hitler and the Nazis was not an aberration, not a sudden departure from the path of progress, but a perfectly predictable outcome based on the structure of the modern world. More to the point, to the hundreds of millions of people who had been subject to both the daily indignities as well as the more sporadic bouts of extraordinary violence that defined life in the colonized world or in the segregated United States, the rise of fascism did not emerge in the 1920’s, it had been there all along. 

When the African-American writer and intellectual Langston Hughes traveled to Spain in 1936 to report on the ongoing Civil War between Spanish republicans and rebellious nationalists supported by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, he came to very different conclusions than a white journalist might have. Rather than being shocked by the ideology of the rebels and their allies, it all seemed very familiar to Hughes. He concluded his 1937 poem “Love Letter from Spain,” written to a fictional lover in Alabama, by explaining one big difference between Spain and the United States:

Just now I’m goin;
To take a Fascist town.
Fascists is Jim Crow peoples, honey- 

And here we shoot ‘em down. 

When we allow for a perspective that comes from outside what Galleano called “the system of power” the past begins to look very different. That system is very good at hiding its role in the production of history. Historians have too often provided cover for the system and to make up for that me must now do our part to reveal that hidden process. To complete the Trouillot quote that began this section, “The ultimate mark of power may be its invisibility; the ultimate challenge, the exposition of its roots.” 

A Better Way

I would like to end this introduction by suggesting a couple of ways that we can practice a better version of history, one that, following Trouillot, exposes the roots of power.  We can do that by also making room for fundamentally different ways of seeing the world and highlighting voices of resistance. 

I earlier quoted Madi Williams writing about the need to examine the world from multiple perspectives, and it is indeed, as she has said, one of the great challenges of global history. Williams is both Maori (the people native to New Zealand) and a historian. As such she is at once trained to research, write, and think according to Western academic norms and concepts, while also being aware of how hostile those norms and concepts can be to Maori modes of thought. This was one of the consequences of the rise of Western global power in the 19th century. What had been a way of thinking that was particular to parts of Europe would come to be presented as a universal way of thinking for all people. This Western form of knowledge, or episteme, was spread directly with European imperialism and at other times more indirectly when it was adopted by native elites who saw it as part of the secret sauce of Western power. The anthropologist Bernard Cohn has argued that when the British colonized India they also colonized a space full of unfamiliar knowledge. They then attempted to make that knowledge familiar through translation into a way of thinking that made more sense to them. A minor but instructive example of this type of translation was the British habit in the mid-18th century of referring to Siraj-Ud-Daulah, the nawab of Bengal, under the much more familiar sounding name “Sir Roger Dowlett”. As small as this might seem, the fact is that his name was not Roger. In the translation something fundamental had been changed. If we imagine countless translations in this manner relating to all types of knowledge, then something more nefarious was happening. As Europeans spread around the world, they were not just recording information about the people they encountered, they were actually taking it upon themselves to be the sole people with the right to define and represent everyone else. Or as Jalal Al-I Ahmad described it, “We remain asleep, but the Westerner has carried us off to his laboratory…” The fact is that so much of our knowledge is tied up in this imperialist project of representation. We cannot fully disentangle our knowledge from its source, but we should always strive to be aware of the roots of our knowledge and the origins of our terminology so we do not end up reproducing the old imperialist power relations in our discussions of the past.

Finally, if we are to produce a better history, one that lives up to the promise of this textbook, then we must do our best to keep the voice of resistance alive. Traditional history tends to relegate failed acts of resistance into the category of “lost causes” which can safely be removed from the dominant narrative. I contend, however, that no cause is truly lost as long as we work to safeguard its memory. When I earlier discussed the prevalence of rebellions and escapes by enslaved people, the independent communities they established, the uprisings on slave ships it was not because these efforts “succeeded”. With the lone exception of Haiti, the rebellions were put down; most of those who escaped their enslavement were caught and punished or killed; sooner or later the independent communities were eradicated; in the vast majority of cases the slave ships safely delivered their human cargo into the nightmare of plantation slavery in the Americas. Nevertheless, these stories must be told because, most importantly, their descendants are still here, still fighting to find a place within societies that frequently signal hostility to their very existence. Thinking more generally than that particular example, the stories of the powerless standing up to the powerful always need to be heard because if we let them fade from memory we become collaborators with the system of power against which they had the courage to stand. We are seeing now in the 21st century United States that there are plenty of people within the system who would love to see such stories of resistance disappear. And that is nothing new. In the 1930’s, with the specter of Nazism haunting him, the philosopher Walter Benjamin wrote that, “The only writer of history with the gift of setting alight the sparks of hope in the past, is the one who is convinced of this: that not even the dead will be safe from the enemy, if he is victorious. And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious… Empathy with the victors thus comes to benefit the current rulers every time.” Resistance doesn’t fail because it’s defeated, but when it’s forgotten. 

This textbook represents a lot of hard work by a group of dedicated scholars who believe deeply in the value of history. Our responsibility was not just to provide a free textbook, but to produce a work of value. One that would allow you, the reader, to see how the “system of power” has so often determined the way people think about the past. To show you what history can look like when it contends with power instead of normalizing and justifying that power. The working of power is rightly given a lot of attention in thinking about how the modern world was constituted. Such focus, however, will always tend to emphasize stories of competition, dominance, and violence so it is no surprise that people believe that these are essential parts of human nature. There is also a hidden history, though, that does more than record what Gandhi called, “every interruption of the even working of the force of love or of the soul.” Uncovering that hidden history will mean mixing in more stories focused on things other than the workings of power. The more we do this, the better chance we have of redefining our own sense of ourselves as a species. In place of competition, dominance, and violence we can instead emphasize how pervasive resilience, creativity, community, and cooperation have been in our history. By telling better stories we can also create better selves. “We are much more than we are told. We are much more beautiful.”

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