Racist Histories and the AHARoundup
tags: historiography, racism, American Historical Association
Sarah Jones Weicksel is director of research and publications at the AHA; she tweets @SarahWeicksel. James Grossman is executive director of the AHA; he tweets @JimGrossmanAHA.
The AHA has begun an initiative to document and reckon with the Association’s role in the dissemination and legitimation of racist historical scholarship that has had a deep and lasting influence on public culture. What damage has the AHA done? What responsibilities and obligations, and to whom, need to be identified, for historians in general and the AHA in particular? What should and can the AHA and historians do going forward? Before we figure out where to go, we need to understand where we have been. The AHA needs to account for the people, practices, events, and policies that brought us to where we are, both as a professional association and as a leading force in the practice of history in the United States.
Founded in 1884 as a professional membership organization, the AHA was incorporated by Congress in 1889 for the promotion of historical studies. The discipline’s professionalization occurred during a decade that was rife with exclusionary practices preceding the enactment of Jim Crow laws and that saw further assault on Indigenous people’s rights through the passage of the Dawes Act. At the 1893 AHA annual meeting, Frederick Jackson Turner articulated his “frontier thesis,” published as one of the most influential articles in the history of the discipline—and one that virtually ignored the presence of African Americans in the nation’s supposedly formative process and cast Indigenous people largely as obstacles. The AHA’s origins are intertwined with this racist and exclusionary historical context.
In its Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct, the Association states:
Historians strive constantly to improve our collective and diverse understanding of the past through a complex process of critical dialogue—with each other, with the wider public, and with the historical record—in which we explore former lives and diverse worlds in search of answers to the most compelling questions of our own time and place.
This “process of critical dialogue” with one’s own past, as a nation, an association, or any other entity, is essential to institutional integrity—with regard not only to racism, but to other aspects of thought, culture, and sensibility as well.
We will begin by investigating and documenting the Association’s role in generating, disseminating, legitimating, and promoting histories that have helped contribute to the evolution and institutionalization of racist ideas, racial discrimination, and racist violence in the United States. Support of racist scholarship has its complement in participation in racist practices. We frequently refer to the AHA as having three levers to initiate change: the powers to legitimate, to convene, and to inspire. This initiative will assess the Association’s engagement in racist practices in these contexts. We aspire to something better, and we must inspire our colleagues to think about what can and should be done with what we learn from this exploration.
We have identified three areas for research into the Association’s practices and its promotion of racist scholarship: the dissemination of scholarship; institutional practices and governance; and prizes.