Found Historiography, History and Historians

Hope and the Worldly Historian


And in despair I bowed my head;
There is no peace on earth, I said;
     For hate is strong,
     And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!” (1)

The last few days, I’ve been turning Ta-Nehisi Coates’s recent post about the place of hope in the practice of history – or rather, his contention that the latter leads to a lack of the former – over in my mind.

My first response was to eagerly nod (er, tweet) in agreement.

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I responded this way partly because I’ve long thought of history, as a working discipline,  as a professionalized (weaponized?) anti-nostalgia. Indeed, the tools provided by historical methodology to afflict such comfortable stories form a significant part of the field’s appeal for me. Now, It may just be that I am merely constitutionally unhappy with declension narratives and the just-so stories they produce. It certainly has the feeling of a the path towards truth, though.

It does to Coates, too. The opposition he sets up, between a writer’s commitments to “truth” versus “hope” works in this mode:

Two creeds can’t occupy the same place at the same time. If your writing must be hopeful, then there’s only room for the kind of evidence which verifies your premise. The practice of history can’t help there. … Indeed, much of our history is the story of things just not working out.

What could be more anti-nostalgic than an enterprise that concludes – after assembling an overwhelming amount of evidence, subjected to enormous scrutiny – that white supremacy has always been with America, even in its most hopeful, revolutionary, and radical moments, and therefore probably always will?

christmas bells tockholes 2009

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
   God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
   The Wrong shall fail,
   The Right prevail,
 With peace on earth, good-will to men

“Don’t Generalize Beyond Your Evidence” is the first rule of historian fight club, and so I should have known better than to make such broad claims in ignorance. Luckily and my colleagues on Twitter (and offline!) soon gently reminded me that not all who labor in this vineyard share my dismal cast.

However, reminders that some approach their work with a more seasonally-appropriate sentiment has been tempered by a concurrent discussion, about how to close out the final lectures and seminars of the semester on the right (high) note. It’s a problem insofar as one wants to end with energy – but the historical narratives that’ve occupied our class time trend most strongly in the other direction at this exact point in the semester. That is: it’s pretty hard to frame the end of Reconstruction, the onset of American empire in the Philippines, or September 11, 2001 (all very common moments for American history courses to conclude) as any kind of hopeful new beginning. (Hindsight may be 20-20, but damned if it isn’t through a glass darkly).

In drafting my own such closing statement for my US & the World course, a piece of Coates’s post appeared in a new light. It’s where he frames the hopelessness of progress on racial equality in American history in geopolitical terms:

Hope and the Historian

What strikes me is how much work the national scope is doing in that passage, and in his conclusions more broadly. As Coates frames it, only Americans’ interactions with the outside world – specifically, threats to whites’ nationalist interests emerging from the international – provide opportunity for changes. But because these circumstances are originate in “external” forces (either  in nearby dissolution, as with the CSA, or more distant evils, as with the Nazis), the “window opening” is understood as unmotivated by processes, or politics, native to American life.

Standing at the end of a semester focused on investigating the intense, constant and consequential interplay between Americans’  national identity and national structures with global forces and movements, that strikes me as an untenable opposition. The mutual co-creation of “America” and “the world” that took place as the United States became a “nation among nations” – and indeed, continues now – is perhaps makes a case for changing the metaphor. There is no window, only wind.


The original meaning of “nostalgia” was “homesickness,” a longing for a native place. Like so many troublesome things, the term only really started to gain currency when it attracted a new meaning in the late 19th century, shifting to meaning a longing for a native time, i.e. the chronological location of childhood. The work we do as historians that demystifies the boundaries of the American nation may serve to dissolve nostalgia in both these senses. By better recognizing how permeable the borders between “foreign” and “domestic” were, and how engaged Americans have been with the rest of the world – in moments of crisis as well as calm – perhaps our histories may also help to dispel that claustrophobic atmosphere of that airless room of American history, which Coates feels so strongly.

If not in favor of hope, per se, then perhaps this moves us in the direction of decoupling the search for truth from that professional feeling of hopelessness.


(1) Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “Christmas Bells,” provides the lyrics for the familiar, melancholic Christmas carol. The lyrics left out of the commonly sung versions reveal the source of his despair: the war waged by the South for white supremacy & slavery.

See: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, The Complete Poetical Works of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin and company, 1893), 289,