Historians on History

Often the public sees history as something that comes already completed in a book or movie, as a story already written, over and done with, and ready to be received (or ignored). That is not how historians see history. The word ‘history’ comes from the ancient Greek historia, which meant, literally, ‘to inquire.’ In the most fundamental sense this means questioning the past, in all its aspects, including the stories told about it, who gets to tell them, and how those stories are told. Those who are charged with researching, writing, and teaching history are trained to look behind the curtain of the stories already completed, and to ask questions, to inquire, and even to interrogate the past in order to find plausible answers that might better inform our human existence, even when those answers pose a threat to established interests. Below is a collection of our favorite statements made by historians, writers, radicals, philosophers, and others who see the past in dynamic but sometimes contradictory and even dangerous terms, often against the grain, and who seek to better our world by understanding history.


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. Whoever until this day emerges victorious, marches in the triumphal procession in which today’s rulers tread over those who are sprawled underfoot. The spoils are, as was ever the case, carried along in the triumphal procession. They are known as the cultural heritage. 

There has never been a document of culture, which is not simultaneously one of barbarism. And just as it is itself not free from barbarism, neither is it free from the process of transmission, in which it falls from one set of hands into another. The historical materialist thus moves as far away from this as measurably possible. He regards it as his task to brush history against the grain.

Walter Benjamin

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

History is not only a substantive burden imposed upon the present by the past in the form of outmoded institutions, ideas, and values, but also the way of looking at the world which gives to these outmoded forms their specious authority.

Hayden White

The history of the United States is a history of settler colonialism – the founding of a state based on the ideology of white supremacy, the widespread practice of African slavery, and a policy of genocide and land theft. Those who seek history with an upbeat ending, a history of redemption and reconciliation, may look around and observe that such a conclusion is not visible, not even in utopian dreams of a better society.

Writing US history from an Indigenous peoples’ perspective requires rethinking the consensual national narrative. That narrative is wrong or deficient, not in its facts, dates, or details but rather in its essence. Inherent in the myth we’ve been taught is an embrace of settler colonialism and genocide. The myth persists, not for a lack of free speech or poverty of information, but rather for an absence of motivation to ask questions that challenge the core of the scripted narrative of the origin story. How might acknowledging the reality of US history work to transform society?

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz

Homo sapiens too, belongs to a family. This banal fact used to be one of history’s most closely guarded secrets. Homo sapiens long preferred to view itself as set apart from animals, an orphan bereft of family, lacking siblings or cousins, and most importantly, without parents. But that’s just not the case. Like it or not, we are members of a large and particularly noisy family called the great apes. Our closest living relatives include chimpanzees, gorillas and orang-utans. The chimpanzees are the closest. Just 6 million years ago, a single female ape had two daughters. One became the ancestor or all chimpanzees, the other is our own grandmother.

Yuval Noah Harari

On the contrary, we require a history that will educate us to discontinuity more than ever before; for discontinuity, and disruption and chaos is our lot.

Hayden White

The effort to ‘brush history against the grain’ requires excavations at the margins of monumental history in order that the ruins of the disremembered past be retrieved, turning to forms of knowledge and practice not generally considered legitimate objects of historical inquiry or appropriate or adequate sources for history making and attending to the cultivated silence, exclusions, relations of violence and domination that engender the official accounts.

Saidiya Hartman

I’m of the conviction that one of the wonders of environmental history is that it opens up a space of exploration where anything and everything in the human past can be looked at in terms of how human actions are embedded in a material world that is only partly of human making.

William Cronon

Humanity entire possesses a commonality which historians may hope to understand just as firmly as they can comprehend what unites any lesser group. Instead of enhancing conflicts, as parochial historiography inevitably does, an intelligible world history might be expected to diminish the lethality of group encounters by cultivating a sense of individual identification with the triumphs and tribulations of humanity as a whole. This, indeed, strikes me as the moral duty of the historical profession in our time. We need to develop an ecumenical history, with plenty of room for human diversity in all its complexity.

William H. McNeill

To be sure, we need history. But we need it in a manner different from the spoiled lazy-bones in the garden of knowledge uses it….That is, we need it for life and action, not for a comfortable turning away from life and action or merely for glossing over the egotistical life and the cowardly bad act. We wish to use history only insofar as it serves the living.

Friedrich Nietzsche

Written history that was cold, factual, and apparently undisturbed by the passions of the time served best the cause of those who did not want to be disturbed.

Charles A. Beard

Purely historical thought is nihilistic…it wholeheartedly accepts the evil of history and delivers the earth to naked force.

Albert Camus

But there are no certainties in history. There are only struggles for justice, and wars interrupted by peace.

Jill Lepore

Unlike the novelist, the historian confronts a veritable chaos of events already constituted, out of which he must choose the elements of the story he would tell. He makes his story by including some events and excluding others, by stressing some and subordinating others. This process of exclusion, stress, and subordination is carried out in the interest of constituting a story of a particular kind.

Hayden White

Forgetting history, or even getting history wrong…are an essential factor in the formation of a nation, which is why the progress of historical studies is often dangerous to a nationality

Ernest Renan

But it would be historically inaccurate to reduce the contributions of black people to the vast material wealth created by our bondage. Black Americans have also been, and continue to be, foundational to the idea of American freedom. More than any other group in this country’s history, we have served, generation after generation, in an overlooked but vital role: It is we who have been the perfecters of this democracy.

Nikole Hannah-Jones

Such a search would necessarily bring into question the value of nationally provided characteristics, would in short reveal  the purely historical nature of national characteristics, and would require  ‘the idea of the nation’ itself to be treated merely as an idea. That is, it would require that the ‘idea of a nation’ be treated as what, in fact, it is, a concept of association which took shape during a particular period of world history, in a particular time and place; which assumed a specific institutional, and cultural form between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries; and which, therefore, might conceivably give place  to some other concept of human association, such as class, race, or merely human capacities for creative sublimation if man’s destructive energies in the future.

Hayden White

The future is uncertain, for it has yet to come; the past, however, is no less uncertain. Docile and capacious, the field of the past has always been eminently susceptible to capitalization, towards multitudinous ends, according to the order of the present.

Vincent Leung

My deepest moral project is to understand the world, which is a really complicated task, and my moral conviction is that rich understanding of the world leads to better, more responsible and just action in the world. We so often act on the basis of our own mythic conceptions; we believe our own lies, and we’re forever lying to ourselves because we want the world to conform to our convictions. Not letting ourselves do that is part of acting morally in the world.

William Cronon

We have the dubious distinction of being the deadliest species in the annals of biology…. If things continue at the present pace, it is likely that whales, sharks, tuna, and dolphins will follow the diprotodons, ground sloths and mammoths to oblivion. Among the world’s survivors of the human flood will be humans themselves, and the farmyard animals that serve as galley slaves in Noah’s Ark.

Yuval Noah Harari

History is written not only by men but also by microbes.

Elizabeth Kolbert

First we must study how colonization works to decivilize the colonizer, to brutalize him in the true sense of the word, to degrade him, to awaken him to buried instincts, to covetousness, violence, race hatred, and moral relativism; and we must show that each time a head is cut off or an eye put out in Vietnam and in France they accept the fact, each time a little girl is raped and in France they accept the fact, each time a Madagascan is tortured and in France they accept the fact, civilization acquires another dead weight, a universal regression takes place, a gangrene sets in, a center of infection begins to spread; and that at the end of all these treaties that have been violated, all these lies that have been propagated, all these punitive expeditions that have been tolerated, all these prisoners who have been tied up and “interrogated,” all these patriots who have been tortured, at the end of all the racial pride that has been encouraged, all the boastfulness that has been displayed, a poison has been distilled into the veins of Europe and, slowly but surely, the continent proceeds toward savagery.

Aimé Césaire

What is history? For someone it could mean something they want to forget or something someone wants to remember, or for someone it could be something they want to change.

Student, history course

‘History’ often serves as the battleground on which competing visions of the nation are fought—who should be included and excluded, where “natural” boundaries begin and end. This almost always requires a process of simplification in which inconvenient details are forgotten and premodern logics are repurposed in the service of more recent presumptions about identity, loyalty, and sovereignty.

Benno Weiner

We shall never have a science of history until we have in our colleges men who regard the truth as more important than the defense of the white race, and who will not deliberately encourage students to gather thesis material in order to support a prejudice or buttress a lie.

W.E.B. DuBois

In what Foucault dubs effective history, an abandonment of analyses grounded in sovereignty is explicitly required. Historical investigations must not reveal the unitary, eternal necessities promised by the philosophers of the past, but instead reveal the lost events, the traumatic, disjointed continuities connecting historical epochs, and the narratives of struggle outshined by discourses of the sovereign.

Sam Holder

In history, we don’t just remember the dead, we do their remembering for them. And that’s an awesome responsibility, but a necessary one.

Gary Day

… the persistent posing of uncomfortable questions and evidence may be a threat to the very elites and their own myths….

A. Dirk Moses

The American Negro has a great advantage of having never believed that collection of myths to which white Americans cling; that their ancestors were all freedom-loving heroes, that they were born in the greatest country the world has ever seen, or that Americans are invincible in battle and wise in piece.

James Baldwin

[T]he system of patriarchy that was built in the Bronze Age…arose out of a combination of militarism and the agricultural revolution. It created a system of hierarchical governments dominated by militarism, in which men hold the resources and distribute them to women who are either members of their family by birth or linked to them through a sexual relationship….As long as patriarchy exists, despite other challenges we make in society…patriarchy will always reconstitute itself and create other hierarchical systems. The emancipation of women is essential to ending these hierarchical systems.

Gerda Lerner

In short, it is possible to view historical consciousness as a specifically Western prejudice by which the presumed superiority of modern industrial society can be retroactively substantiated.

Hayden White

 Man makes his own history, but he does not make it out of the whole cloth; he does not make it out of conditions chosen by himself, but out of such as he finds close at hand. The tradition of all past generations weighs like an alp upon the brain of the living. At the very time when men appear engaged in revolutionizing things and themselves, in bringing about what never was before, at such very epochs of revolutionary crisis do they anxiously conjure up into their service the spirits of the past, assume their names, their battle cries, their costumes to enact a new historic scene in such time-honored disguise and with such borrowed language….Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. 

Karl Marx

I think this is a fairly common outlook among many professional historians. Hope may well be relevant to their personal lives, but it is largely irrelevant to their study. Moreover, the search for a crude inspiration, for a narrative which dictates that America triumph in the end or justice necessarily wins out, seems immaterial to their actual discipline. I haven’t taken a poll of American historians, but I suspect a large number of them would find Nell Painter’s diagnosis – an assertion of the counted tenacity of white supremacy – to be credible.

Ta-Nehisi Coates

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