This is the way it was. Hard to beat that as a definition of history. On the other hand….
Maybe we have not quite done right by prehistory. Like calling it prehistory, for instance. Whenever you see the prefix ‘pre’ in front of anything historical, it’s another way of saying “the stuff that comes next is more important.” Homo sapiens may not have been around yet in one million B.C., and by the time we showed up, no dinosaurs (sorry Hollywood). Yet the 200,000 years or more we were around before civilization and agriculture, still pack plenty of historical punch – a time worth our attention. The development of syntactic language and cognitive imagination and abstract thinking, coupled with the evolution of our current biomechanical physiques (think Raquel Welch), meant Homo sapiens were well down the path of social evolution and global migration. The good old days? Well, put it this way: no slavery, no patriarchy, no famine, no firearms, no large scale wars, no empires, no taxation, no prisons, no global pandemics. We have agriculture and civilization to thank for all that. So how about we leave the caveman cliches with Hollywood (and maybe Geico), and try to figure out how and why we got into our current predicament. Please, if we don’t call it progress or assume it was all somehow inevitable, let alone divinely scripted, we’ll not only have better histories, but better and more humane options for what comes next.
As the United States once again sees the dreadful legacy of a gun culture reap its deadly toll on the living, we pause to consider how the histories we inherit condition us to mis-remember the violence of civilization’s past. Often presented in the narrative guise of a patriotic nostalgia and exceptionalism, the historical violence of empire and nation building translates into the adoration of certain iconic ‘great men of history.’ These same men were themselves the chief architects of those violent projects, and yet within the nostalgic national and imperial narratives, they are imagined to be the personified ‘soul’ of the nation or empire. It is all part of a historical hustle we call the sovereignty trap, and with Episode 40 we begin our second year of History Against the Grain discussing the better histories that can liberate us from its dreadful legacies.
To hear Episode 40 Better Histories, click on the link below:
I think that we need to practice something that’s even better than objectivity. And that is, as you know, critique. Critique, to me, is better than 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.Robin D.G. Kelley
Sources Referenced and Items of Interest
Priya Satia, “Fascism and Analogies — British and American, Past and Present” (March 16, 2021, Los Angeles Review of Books).
Vinson Cunningham, “The future of L.A. is here. Robin D.G. Kelley’s radical imagination shows us the way” (March 27, 2021 Los Angeles Times)
Ben Smith, “He Redefined ‘Racist.’ Now He’s Trying to Build a Newsroom” (March 21, 2021, New York Times)
Patrick Manning, A History of Humanity: The Evolution of the Human System (2020).
“Historical and local specificities mean all analogies are ultimately inaccurate in ways that historians must always make clear. The point of such comparisons, however, is to uncover darker historical truths obscured by prevailing, more flattering comparisons.”Priya Satia