Wednesday, May 18, 2011

On Presentism

Dear U.S. History Student,

I understand protectiveness of your idols, I guess. If I felt someone impugned the figure of, say, Fannie Lou Hamer, I'd be ready to take off the earrings and smear the Vaseline. But I'm weary of your smug responses to any critique of your beloved Founders and/or your racist and sexist and classist grandfathers--the cry of presentism. How dare I or any student suggest that your beloveds were, well, fucked up? We can only come to that conclusion because we're judging them through the lenses of our day. We have to look at the "time in which they lived" (C). We are guilty, in our naivete and lack of understanding, of presentism.

I'd like to point out that your concept of presentism rests heavily in your identification with dominant groups. You may not have noticed, but one of the books I use, that you're supposed to be reading, is called Dissent in America. It's chock full of all kinds of primary sources that show that people in the past also thought your idols were full of privileged bullshit. Your adored historical figures had contemporary critics who were pointing out the same things that your classmates and I are. So, your claim of presentism dismisses all those people, all their arguments, and the history of dissent in this country.

I suppose that saying "The historical figures I admire were understandably a product of their times" is a lot more face-saving than saying "The historical figures I admire held tightly to oppressive systems out of self-interest and an unwillingness to challenge the status quo, thus ignoring the people who suggested that maybe, just maybe, there were problems with said systems." Whatever. Hey, they ignored protest from the margins, why shouldn't you?!

So, you can, if you choose, go ahead understating your idols' flaws and bristling at the critique of them. Or you can acknowledge things like the fact that, for whatever else they did, quite a few of your Founders were a bunch of sexist, elitist, racist slaveholders, some people told them that, and they didn't give a damn. Or that it wasn't just some abstract notions of states' rights and strict constitutionality that your southern forefathers were interested in upholding. Etc, etc.

Or you can continue to claim that critiques of them only occur in the present and conveniently disappear people like:

Benjamin Banneker
Abigail Adams
Maria Stewart
Frederick Douglass
John Brown
Chief Joseph
Ida Wells
Mother Jones
Joe Hill
Carlos Montezuma
Alice Paul
W.E.B DuBois
Hubert Harrison
Angelo Herndon
Fred Korematsu
Hector Garcia
Grace Lee Boggs
Bayard Rustin
Septima Clark
Clyde Warrior
Dolores Huerta
Audre Lorde
Vito Russo
Howard Zinn

Yep, I listed all those as a start. Crying presentism erases their historical critiques, their arguments that the world that was, wasn't the world that had to be.

Of course, that version of history is the one for which you probably long. It's safe. You can simultaneously, dissonant-ly claim the U.S. is exceptional and dismiss any problems with "but other people did it as well." Either we're different and special-er than everyone else or we're not; make up your mind. But maybe that dissonance is part of our heritage as well--how could the same person who theorized "All men are created equal" so completely challenge his own theory in Notes on the State of Virginia?

But my God, if your totally complacent answer is "That's just how it is," what limited possibilities must you envision for yourself and your abilities to effect change?


dr. elle


elle said...

I should point out that I am also critiquing students understanding of "presentism."

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this post. I have been called "presentist" many times for pointing out that historical actors were racist and that historians did not critique racism or imperialism well. Usually, it was by white colleagues who wanted to excuse their own racism by "calling me out." I will be returning to your post many times, I'm sure!

Revelations and ruminations from one southern sistorian...