If you’ve never seen a historian cry, you’re probably hanging out with the wrong historians. The day you see multiple world-renowned historians literally break down at the podium while countless others shed tears in the audience, life will never be the same. You will at once know and feel what it really means to be an intellectual. While academic conferences may occasionally discuss affect theory in the abstract, it is a rare conference indeed that stumbles upon emotion as an intellectual practice unto itself. One such magical gathering recently took place at the University of Chicago on April 29th and 30th. It was called Marking Race, Making History: A Conference in Celebration of the Career of Thomas Holt. Yale University’s George Chauncey called it “the academy at its best.”
Perhaps nothing else could have brought together such a remarkable group of scholars, and compelled them to bear their souls in public, except the impending retirement of Thomas C. Holt. Holt is one of the world’s greatest living historians. He has won nearly every award and every honor known to the profession. MacArthur Genius Award, President of the American Historical Association, Member of the American Philosophical Society—all have ‘fallen like dominoes.’ Among scholars of the African American past, no one (and I mean no one) has done it better. He is the prototypical historian’s historian. With this level of academic street cred Holt certainly has earned the right to dictate his terms. Before agreeing to participate in a conference in his honor, he did indeed make one demand on conference organizers Allyson Hobbs of Stanford University and Jonathan Levy of the University of Chicago: “Make sure it’s about the students.” And that’s why the scholars cried.
This tireless devotion to his students, beyond his groundbreaking research, has ultimately sustained Holt for nearly half a century at the top of the ‘academic food chain.’ Looking out over the crowd of students and colleagues Holt described a symbiotic relationship between teaching, mentoring, and researching. “It is you who are my tutors,” he insisted. Yet, upon hearing the parade of his former and current students (myself included) as they described their research and intellectual approach, it would be hard to deny that a “Holtian” method was clearly at work. The methodology, in many ways, matches the man. It is bold yet careful. Wide-ranging yet specific. Cutting edge and still deeply grounded in tradition. Both/and rather than either/or. Subjective in its political intent yet still committed to objectively telling the truth. It refuses most binaries even as it explores how everyday people constructed and interacted with those binaries. Politics, culture, economics, ideology, and any other number of supposedly discreet categories become overlapping spheres of influence in the hands of a “Holtian”—distinctions to be made only to be danced across at will. National borders become playthings—certainly they matter—but their fleeting, contingent nature is never far from mind.
While remaining unapologetically black, the “Holtian” tradition sees blackness in a constant state of emergence. Blackness shapes Western modernity even as it is shaped by it. Race emerges as part of “The Problem of Freedom.” Capitalism sucks. Slavery sucks. Yes, they overlap. But don’t you dare reduce them to one another and forget the true denigration of chattel slavery or the vital importance of black emancipation. While state and corporate power are central preoccupations, Holt’s “abiding faith in ordinary people,” as described by Duke’s Thavolia Glymph, is evident in nearly all of his students. Their work remains intimately connected ‘to the ground,’ driven by narrative, and deeply human. They all demonstrate flashes of that annoying UChicago ‘scary smart’ but they never let it overtake the legibility of their work or their focus on everyday black lives. Holt’s legacy, like that of his advisor C. Van Woodward before him, has been cemented by the care, the compassion, and the love that he has showered upon his graduate students.
But what of the man himself and the influence of his research? N.D.B. Connolly at Johns Hopkins never met Holt before the conference but came to honor the man whose every printed word he still cherishes. Many participants testified to teaching and/or re-reading The Problem of Race in the Twenty First Century almost religiously. Martha S. Jones from the University of Michigan offered a glorious example of how the personal and historical can enter into a productive scholarly dialectic. Columbia University’s Mae Ngai expressed the feelings of so many other people of color in the room when she cited Holt’s deep and abiding solidarity with all those subjected to American racism. Richard White from Stanford University marveled at the detailed rendering of the political economy that Holt’s first book Black Over White demonstrated in 1977, before the ‘new history of capitalism’ starting thinking about things like tax law. And The Problem of Freedom—well, that’s another two day conference by itself.
Above all, however, Holt’s personal ties to the Civil Rights Movement are what truly shaped him into one of the first tenured black radicals. He’s an activist with a classroom. Several of his former students (Laurie Green from UT Austin and Quincy Mills from Vasser) traced his role in the sit-ins that took place in his native Danville, Virginia—placing the historian as part of the history as well as its author. Holt later admitted that the first time he heard the name Frederick Douglass was while sitting down in protest on those steps of city hall.
Then came the unexpected. Professor Chauncey told the story of how Holt in his capacity as AHA president effectively boycotted the city of Cincinnati in 1995 by moving the AHA’s annual meeting to Chicago (at great financial loss to the organization) after Cincinnati passed a series of anti-LGBT laws. Coming at a time when same sex marriage was still polling somewhere around the single digits, Holt’s intersectional commitment to equality was decades ahead of its time. LGBT activists on Twitter took note of the #Holt2016 hashtag during the conference, stretching this historical moment into the present. Holt’s foresight has not stopped. I know personally that he was also an early supporter of Occupy Chicago, Black Lives Matter, and several other social justice movements taking shape in and around the University of Chicago. While demanding scholarly excellence from himself and his students, part of that project for Holt is to write a history of possibility that will keep the dream of revolution alive.
Yet beyond the politics and the intellectual banter, it was the striking atmosphere and emotional wellspring that everyone who attended remarked upon. In the end, one thing above all else became abundantly clear—emotion is a lightning rod by which to gather and channel the past. Only a true virtuoso in touch with both the human costs and the political stakes of their work, however, can hope to approach such a scholarly gesture. How we, as scholars, feel about what we do is something we talk about far too infrequently. Such feelings, in fact, are often actively suppressed. “No one cares what you feel. Tell us what you think” is, unfortunately, a common refrain dispensed across elite-level graduate seminar tables.
What I experienced, however, was a group of historians talking, feeling, and expressing their love for their friend, their guide, their mentor, and the work that they all collectively undertake. The University of Chicago’s Adam Green perhaps said it best when he told the august crowd that Professor Holt “teaches me how to love.” Indeed, while this event was billed as an academic conference it might more accurately be described as an expression of love in a scholarly guise. Love from teacher to student. Love from student to teacher. Love among colleagues in a cause greater than them all. As academics we too often fear exposing ourselves to charges of naïveté if we put any faith in the supposedly irrational promptings of our hearts. This must stop. Holt himself, and the conference in his honor may show us the way. At this very moment, Holt is even making an explicitly affective turn in his work by using emotion as a pathway to explain why the Emmett Till lynching started the so-called ‘classic’ phase of the Civil Rights Movement. Will we as a profession make that turn as well, not only in our scholarship, but in our daily interactions with one another? If so, perhaps we can once again follow the lead of Thomas C. Holt, who, at the age of 73, reminded the world: “I’m still becoming.”