As Historians Face More Political Pressure, the James Sweet Controversy Won't DieHistorians in the News
tags: American Historical Association, James Sweet
The trouble started with a writer on deadline. James Sweet, who goes by Jim, is a white professor of African history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and the former president of the American Historical Association (A.H.A.). Every month, he was tasked with writing a column for Perspectives on History, a magazine put out by the association, which is mostly read by academics. Last summer, while he was on vacation in Ghana, he was struggling to come up with a column idea, and so he started looking around for inspiration.
At his hotel one morning, “a group of African Americans began trickling into the breakfast bar,” he wrote. Sweet noticed that one of them had brought along “a dog-eared copy of The 1619 Project,” a book-length expansion of the Times’ exploration of America’s founding, which looks at the country’s origins through the lens of slavery and racism. Later, Sweet and his family visited Elmina Castle, a slave-trading post on the Gulf of Guinea. “Our guide gave a well-rehearsed tour geared toward African Americans,” despite the fact that “less than one percent of the Africans passing through Elmina arrived in North America.” To Sweet, these examples illustrated the temptation of “presentism”—a concept, often used by scholars in a derogatory manner, referring to studies of the past that are distorted by the ideas of the present. In his essay, he leaned on some other examples, such as “The Woman King,” a popular film from last year, which seemed, to him, to twist violent episodes of African history into a story of Black, feminist triumph. He also brought in Supreme Court decisions written by Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito, who made historical arguments to support decisions on guns and abortion rights. It was a list of strange bedfellows, but his point, or at least the point he wanted to make, was methodological. “We’re being inundated with history at all sorts of turns. No one is immune to that,” Sweet told me recently. “Certain narratives are harnessed in the service of particular political perspectives. For me, that’s a dangerous trend for professional historians to get drawn into.”
Sweet is part of a dying breed of old-school academics. He has a secure job in a field where tenure-track positions are dwindling. He relishes writing books and teaching, not influencing public policy or the news cycle, which many academics now consider part of their job; his manuscripts have led him aboard a mutinous eighteenth-century British slave ship, into the religious lives of early-modern Africans, and along the unlikely travels of an eighteenth-century slave and healer named Domingos Álvares. In a field that’s deeply divided over whether archives can do justice to the stories of the marginalized, Sweet is an archives guy; to tell Álvares’s story, he sifted through a six-hundred-page Inquisition file, along with Catholic parish records, travelogues, and census records. And, as a white expert in African history, he has become part of a larger debate about whether someone should teach a history that is not their own.
Sweet’s anxiety about the need for historians to produce new knowledge—and his desire to define the field by this act—stems from a debate that’s been happening behind the scenes at the A.H.A. After Sweet took on his role as president last winter, the A.H.A. council convened an ad-hoc committee to develop the association’s guidelines on what counts as scholarship. Traditionally, a historian who goes up for an academic job, tenure, or a promotion needs to have written a book—typically something called a single-author monograph. Under the proposed new guidelines, which the committee developed, additional categories of scholarship would count textbooks, reference guides, op-eds, and testimonies to legislatures and regulatory agencies, along with more novel ideas of scholarship such as consulting on the development of video games and “expanding our media presence across a wide range of platforms.” University history departments can adapt these guidelines as they wish, but the A.H.A.’s imprimatur is influential. Grossman, the A.H.A. executive director, has pushed for the expanded guidelines on the principle that the diffusion of knowledge is just as important as its creation. On this point, the two Jims are at odds: Sweet worries about these new kinds of materials replacing monographs, in large part because he is unsure of how they can be rigorously peer-reviewed. “The odyssey of researching and writing a monograph endows us with the expertise and gravitas that define us as historians,” Sweet wrote in a column in the February, 2022, issue of Perspectives. “Absent this high standard, we lose intellectual authority and political credibility. Indeed, without it, I fear we run the risk of becoming the same as the trolls and amateur hacks who challenge our expertise.”
Rita Chin, a history professor at the University of Michigan who led the ad-hoc committee, told me she thinks the new guidelines simply reflect the life of academics at universities with heavy teaching loads. Some scholars don’t have time to write fully researched books, but they might still be able to contribute valuable scholarly work in other forms. She said that some of the resistance to broadening the definition of scholarship comes down to gatekeeping: the monograph is an easy way to distinguish the work of academic historians from that of other civilians who love history, such as Civil War reënactors or amateur bloggers. “That line is more blurry in the discipline of history, because we are a discipline that feels more accessible to ordinary, non-professionally trained people,” she said.