Word for the future: ACTIVHISTorian

Over 150 years ago, The Revolution’s Elizabeth Cady Stanton told women: “I challenge you to dare and do anything.” I don’t know that she ever considered “becoming historians” part of her challenge, but she might as well have. Women of all types have fundamentally altered the way history gets done. So have others who were not among the pale, facial-haired, slice of later-19th-century humanity that first determined the “rules” of the newly-birthed academic field and what mattered as subjects and processes.[1] Yet today, those outside the same elite sliver can still struggle to assert their work as “measuring up,” especially if the work appears a bit too personal, too radical, too activist. In other words, not objective enough.

Too many have confused objectivity with dispassionate disassociation, activism with a lack of rigor. And since the 19th century, plenty of those calling themselves historians have inverted objectivity on behalf of racist and sexist policies and nationalistic goals, even as others have worked to avoid the intellectual and ethical contortions that requires. Archival assessments indicate just how little of some people’s past resides in those collections (collected by elites with avowed agendas) on which historians rely. This has propelled creative scholars and the generally curious to uncover unconventional documentation and allow their personal experience to propel their work forward.

Consider the anti-lynching activist, Ida B. Wells (1862-1931), a chronological peer of the esteemed founders of the American Historical Association. She objectively uncovered reams of evidence of the brutalities and lies undergirding White supremacy—and did so with impassioned, personal, and radical activism. Where were her archives, given it seems no one went looking for evidence that might support a federal anti-lynching law, including illustrious historians? Where was her objectivity, given she found herself on the receiving end of lynching threats after writing about the lynching of three of her close friends? Should she have withheld her activist tendencies until the United States Senate finally passed a federal anti-lynching law in December 2018? Activism and objectivity are not mutually exclusive categories.

So I put forward the term, ACTIVHISTorian as a word for today and of the future, the formatting particulars for now differentiating it from a misread, active historian. The questions we ask of history need urgent relevance if the field is going to resist an overt, dare I say “activist,” attempt to stifle it, silencing an uncomfortable past that does not fit a preferred narrative. Getting history wrong harms people, creates discriminatory policy, and feeds misunderstanding the world over.

Historians must be activists—ACTIVHISTorians—especially in the questions they pose, the innovative ways they seek out evidence, and their willingness to share their toolkit with as many people as possible. They must not be afraid of the accusation that they “have an agenda” as they empower others with historical information and an instructor’s manual anyone can use. We must all learn how to think historically, ask good questions about the past and its relationship with the present, and think about what counts as evidence and whose voices we can’t yet hear. Silences rarely mean non-existence.

ACTIVHISTorians must share the how-tos of doing of history with students, the public, and especially those who have been intentionally marginalized from the historical record. Not coincidentally, those include people often labeled women, people of color, Indigenous, and LGBTQ*, among others, including those raised in economically disadvantaged circumstances. The redeemer history featuring the proverbial “pulling themselves up by their bootstraps” scenario can hide just how many went without boots—or weren’t allowed to wear them.

This is not a mere dispassionate academic exercise, this historian’s endeavor. Dictatorships and regimes of their ilk have long sought ways to destroy the historical record so they can tell the story they wish. How many have been paid by the states of Stalin, Hitler, Milosevic, the Taliban, Big Men, and White supremacist regimes to tell the stories that justify power and genocidal goals? How many who said no did not survive?

We must all work to ask why the past matters and how it influences the present. What questions might allow us to see the connections better, and where might we find evidence that helps answer those questions? In that sense, we can all be ACTIVHISTorians. We need to be, now more than ever.

Pamela Stewart is an editor at TRR.

[1] American Historical Association, “A Brief History of the AHA,” American Historical Association, 2018. Accessed December 19, 2019. https://www.historians.org/about-aha-and-membership/aha-history-and-archives/brief-history-of-the-aha.