American history since the 1960s has been plagued by the problem of “presentism,” the insistence that historians leave their ivory towers and use their knowledge of history to help us understand and fix social problems of the present. Its provenance is Marxist, so it was natural that the late historian Howard Zinn, in 1967, contributed an essay “History as Private Enterprise” to a collection honoring Herbert Marcuse, a leader in the Frankfurt School that created Critical Theory, which was then modified into Critical Race Theory.
Zinn encouraged historians to engage in “social action” in the manner of “a group of American historians” who, in 1965, “joined the Negroes marching from Selma to Montgomery.”
Furthermore, historians’ writing and scholarship should be aimed “towards humane concerns,” inspiring readers and students to engage in “social action,” such as marching and protesting.
One of Zinn’s biggest critics, Harvard history professor Oscar Handlin, bemoaned the trends in the profession illustrated starkly by Zinn’s work. Handlin wrote that historians, “in reducing truth to an instrument, even an instrument for doing good,” “necessarily blunt its edge. . . . For, when truth ceases to be an end in itself and becomes but a means toward an end, it also becomes malleable. . . .”
Indeed, truth has become malleable. It’s essentially what James H. Sweet, Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and a specialist in African history and the Atlantic slave trade, wrote in his Aug. 17 column, “Is History History?” on the American Historical Association website, of which he is also president.
The essay weighed in on the problem of “presentism,” which he describes as evidenced today in reading “the past through the prism of contemporary social justice issues—race, gender, sexuality, nationalism, capitalism,” as well as historical focus on recent time periods.
Sweet used examples from the political right and the political left as illustrations. His characterization of conservatives wanting to forbid teaching about slavery and present the Founders as flawless “tribunes of liberty” along with opinions by Supreme Court Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito, though wrong, hardly produced a peep.
Not so for Sweet’s mild and sympathetic criticism of the New York Times’s 1619 Project, which he had initially viewed as “a synthesis of a tradition of Black nationalist historiography dating to the 19th century with Ta-Nehisi Coates’s recent call for reparations.” Indeed, “The 1619 Project: A New American Origin Story” book version concludes with Nikole Hannah-Jones’s essay explicitly claiming that the material in the volume supported “race-specific remedies” for “a vastly unequal society maintained by historical and systemic racism” — reparations.
Sweet had not even thought of the project as a work of history — a view in line with what Hannah-Jones herself said in the past: that it was “not a history,” but “a work of journalism.” Yet, it seemed to become one as historians engaged with it and 1619 Project lessons were infused into thousands of schools, spurring protests by school boards against “the characterization of Washington, Jefferson, and Madison as unpatriotic owners of ‘forced labor camps.’”
Sweet falsely claimed that “Conservative lawmakers decided that if this was the history of slavery being taught in schools, the topic shouldn’t be taught at all.” (A major alternative, The Hillsdale 1776 Curriculum, in fact, introduces Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass to kindergartners and the issue of slavery to third-graders.)
Yet, Sweet was rightfully concerned about the popularity of The 1619 Project and similarly flawed presentations of the African slave trade.
He was correct about how The 1619 Project falsely cast slavery in America by ignoring the fact that the “20. and odd” Africans who arrived in Jamestown in 1619, the seminal moment for The Project, were but a small part of the entire shipload, most of whom went to Mexico, Jamaica, and Bermuda, and that the vast majority passing through the slave port of Elmina went not to the American colonies but “to Brazil and the Caribbean.”
He was absolutely correct to present concern that the tour guide at Elmina (in Ghana where Sweet was traveling) wrongly stated that the Ghanaians “unknowingly” sent their “servants” into chattel slavery. No, villages had been raided for slaves to be sold, a practice that had been going on for centuries before the arrival of the Europeans. Sweet also rightly pointed out that the claim in the forthcoming film “The Woman King” that “Dahomey’s female warriors and King Ghezo fought the European slave trade” is false. To the contrary, “they promoted it” (emphasis added).
These are long-established, accepted historical facts.
That Americans are taking The 1619 Project as true history, as displayed by the “dog-eared” copy of The 1619 Project of an extended African American family visiting Africa, as Sweet described, is cause for concern (as is the claim in the accompanying children’s picture book, used kindergarten to eighth-grade, that “white people” came to Africa and kidnapped and “traded another’s child / another’s momma and daddy” whom they “bought and sold . . . alongside horses and chairs”).
But Sweet’s accompanying acknowledgment of African Americans’ “affirmation and bonding” through “the memorialization of ancestors lost to slavery,” wasn’t enough.
Nor was it enough that he linked back to an American Historical Association video of historians, including himself, objecting to attempts to keep the factually flawed 1619 Project out of classrooms.
The Struggle Session
Sweet’s apology, posted the next day, could have come from the Soviet archives. He expressed his regret that his “Perspectives on History column has generated anger and dismay among many of our colleagues and members.” He only intended “to open a conversation on how we ‘do’ history in our current politically charged environment.”
Furthermore, he “sincerely” regretted “the way I have alienated some of my Black colleagues and friends.” His “clumsy efforts to draw attention to methodological flaws in teleological presentism” had “left the impression that questions posed from absence, grief, memory, and resilience somehow matter less than those posed from positions of power. This absolutely is not true. It wasn’t my intention to leave that impression, but my provocation completely missed the mark.”
That’s a new crime — provocation!
The Trotskyites, over at the World Socialist Web Site, noted that Sweet’s “abject mea culpa maxima,” includes in “a note of just 260 words,” Sweet’s apology “three times for ‘causing harm’ or ‘damage’ to ‘colleagues, the discipline, and the Association.’ The following phrases all appear: “I take full responsibility;’ ‘I am deeply sorry;’ ‘I sincerely regret;’ ‘it wasn’t my intention;’ and the especially scraping, ‘I hope to redeem myself.’ If one did not know the context, it might be assumed that this was a confession extracted after torture before the Inquisition” — or after a Moscow show trial — as the Trotskyites should know!
As Phil Magness recounts, “Within moments of his column appearing online, all hell broke loose on Twitter,” with Hannah-Jones retweeting attacks (none of which addressed the points Sweet made). There were demands that he step down and claims that his apology was insincere, displaying a “misogynoir, condescending tone.” Public commenting was soon blocked by the American Historical Association.
The situation in 2022 has deteriorated since those heady days when Howard Zinn led students on protests. An accomplished scholar has been brought down to the position of supplicant by someone whose distortion of American and world history is embarrassingly displayed, page after page.
Back in 1971, Handlin could get his articles criticizing Zinn and the decline of the history profession published in the New York Times. Today, even an accomplished historian with an endowed chair dares not make the mildest critique about a “project” that one of its non-historians writes. And the only ones that seem to be defending him are the conservatives whom he has mocked and misrepresented.