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Dec 27, 2003 6:43 am


ON THE PLEASURE OF BEING REVISED ...



Happy Chanukka to all of those who celebrate it. As for me, imagine a technically inept academic caught in a tangle of Christmas lights and reaching for his keyboard as a desperate act of self-liberation. I grew up in a rather traditional German-American family which allowed no tree in the house before Christmas Eve and it promptly came down on New Year's Day. All the technical and logistical problems get crammed into a short span. Don't even ask about the family crises when I haven't been able to make the bloody tree stand up for a whole week.

Over at Easily Distracted, Tim Burke expands on his thoughts about"The Return of the King" with a second essay about genre and the problem of what I would call"disciplinary discipleship." Odd that I'd never thought how those two words had the same root. Followers of the same discipline would be disciples, but Burke sees the problem in thinking and working that way. Sure, we need to learn from the learned in apprenticeship, but a follower cannot transcend the achievement of the leader. That's the problem of derivative scholarship and derivative literature. No wonder that the Swiss theologian Karl Barth denied that he was a"Barthian." Lately, I have to kick myself and say:"Don't try to be a Burkean or a Johnsonian. They'll always be better Tim Burkes and KC Johnsons than you can ever hope to be."

Fortunately, my own apprenticeship as a historian was an easy mantle. My dissertation director allowed, even encouraged, me to disagree with him -- to"revise" him, if you will. So, on the one hand, I've never experienced the horror stories of those who ran afoul of rigid taskmasters and, on the other, I've never understood the cry against"revision," as if it were ipso facto distortion. In many, if not most, cases, to do worthy history is necessarily to"revise." Nor do I understand the umbrage some historians take at being challenged. To be challenged, after all, means that the good Lord or fate or happenstance has allowed you to live so long that some reasonably intelligent historian thought that you had once said something that was worthy of debate and has finally gotten the challenge into print. Many historians never have the pleasure of having lived long enough to see themselves"revised." What's wrong with that?

At Atlanta's recent AAR convention, I introduced myself to Oberlin's A. G. Miller. On hearing my name, he smiled and referred obliquely to his new biography, Elevating the Race: Theophilous G. Steward, Black Theology, and the Making of an African American Civil Society, 1865-1924. I first encountered T. G. Steward's legacy forty years ago, when I was interning as an assistant pastor for the summer of Macon, Georgia's First Baptist Church, an African American congregation. Just up Cotton Avenue from us was Steward Chapel A. M. E. Church. In that building named for its early pastor, I heard Martin Luther King, Sr., raise some righteous hell with Macon's white folks. Years later, I wrote a bit about T. G. Steward in The Social Gospel in Black and White: American Racial Reform, 1885-1912.

Miller was kind enough to send me a copy of his fine new book and, behold, I was revised. The larger context for his disagreement with me is this. I surveyed a spectrum of white attitudes in race relations at the turn of the century and identified spokesmen for each position: radical assimilationism (Josiah Strong), conservative assimilationism (Josiah Royce), conservative separatism (Edgar Gardner Murphy), and radical separatism (Thomas Dixon). Based on a definition of what"racism" is, I said that only the separatists, Murphy and Dixon, might rightly be called racists. That definition held that"racism is a pattern of thought that relates mind to matter by making culture a function of physiology." Racial separatists held that people of African descent could not and should not try fully to exemplify high culture as defined by the canons of western civilization. Racial assimilationists held that people of African descent both could and should expect to do so.

My friend, A. G. Miller, challenges my argument that a radical assimilationist, such as Josiah Strong, is not rightly understood as a racist. He and many others by now and by implication would argue that my definition of racism is inadequate. For one thing, it allows for the possibility that some African Americans are racists. If"true culture" is rooted in an Africanist frame, those who reify biological descent would say that we white folk are just out of luck or, at best, in a separate sphere. I cannot fully appreciate the blues, for example, because I am not an African American. Secondly, and by extension, I think Miller would argue that my definition of racism is inadequate because it takes no account of power or structural relationships. Only when racial prejudice wields power is it truly racist. Racial prejudice lacking power is no significant threat.

These are significant issues, I think."Racism" and"racist" continue to be bandied about. We need to understand what people mean by them when they use the words. I still disagree with Miller because I think one must give definitional precision to them, lest they lose all utility. Like the Mother Hubbard dress of yesterday's modesty, they could cover everything, but touch on nothing. Miller does convince me that the problems of a" cultural assimilationist" position are as real as the problems of a" cultural separatist" one, but I still would like to hear a definition from him of what"racism" is. In any case, I am grateful for having lived long enough to witness having been revised.

For the moment, however, this revised historian needs to get to bed and deal with those tangled Christmas lights in the morning.


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