Why Do History?
More than once, I have tried to catch a fugitive slave. I think I’m okay with this.
I came to these realizations as I thought about Greg Childs’s post on Brazilian maroons and the writing of history. Through his effort to understand what happened surrounding the life and death of Lucas de Feira, he highlights the depth of the historian’s desire to know, to find a record that will allow us to trace an individual. The work of the historian thus lies “uncomfortably parallel” to that of the slave catcher, and so it’s worth wondering when the historian can feel okay letting “fugitives remain at large.” While my impulse is to say that it’s never okay to leave stories untold, Greg’s question pushed me to explore the reasons why I do history at all.
I wanted to think here about that post because the ideas were so stimulating, because it led me to ask questions about my present and future work, and because I still find it so difficult to answer what I thought was a simple question about why that work matters.
I am still figuring out how to express my thoughts and feelings on that question.
As I weighed the question, I turned to a few things other historians have said on the subject. A few years back, I saw Hannah Rosen talk about the challenges of studying violence in the post-emancipation United States. She had come to the uncomfortable realization that a good day in the archive was one in which she uncovered atrocities committed against black men and women. If we think of ourselves as doing history in a way that can do something for the distant people we study, we also have to think about the ways our research and writing might do things to them.
There’s also the issue of what recovery does for the historian. Kidada Williams, tweeting on the New York Times recent coverage of lynching studies, pointed to a desire among scholars for “healing” narratives. She asked the critical question, “Why can’t some black folks just be hurt?” Similarly, Greg suggests in his post that recovery can represent a desire to keep tragedy at a safe, analytical distance. I thought as well about Jill Lepore, who noted in a conversation on her recent Book of Ages that she was drawn to “the impossibility of the project.” Recovery, she said, allows us to think about the many ways that other people walk through life. I tend to explain history in similar terms – we broaden our experience through that of others. But does this not then—as the mining of human histories for our own benefit—raise other questions about exploitation?
In the face of these doubts, I still think I’ll choose to hunt the fugitive. Walter Johnson questions, among other things, whether we can do anything for subjects who “have long since passed on.” If we can, I’ll turn my thoughts to the people whose stories remain untold, and to be on the safe side, I’ll guess that a given subject, even a fugitive from law and society, would have wanted others to know his experience. And, while I remain curious about the implications of the idea, it’s clearer, I think, that history can and should do something for us. I also think that still too many people refuse to grasp the fullness of individuals’ experiences; the complexity of humans’ actions, emotions, and choices; and the endless variety of circumstances that shape those experiences. My hope is that doing all I can to catch a fugitive might further our sense of that variety, that complexity, and that fullness.
I think I’m okay with this.
Comments on “Why Do History?”
Chris, what an intriguing and deeply interesting blog post! I hear you asking questions that bottom line to the why historians “do” history. And in this “doing” I hear you saying that many of us seek to “solve” the mysteries of life, the historical mysteries of life. But are some aspects of history just better off left unknown, unsolved? (I hear you presenting this question) I find this question very interesting. As someone whose work is within the 1600-1800’s, I know all too well about searching for the non-existent record desperately trying to find an individual or something that will lead to, at least, understanding the social context of the individual.
Thanks for making the historian think 🙂
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