The Two Weeks in August When Historians Mattered

The last two weeks have been a blur. The public discussion about the fate of Confederate monuments continues with no end in sight, fueled in part by the president’s own fears that “our culture” and “our history” runs the risk of being erased. I anticipated having to talk with a couple of reporters, but never anticipated just how much time would be spent helping others try to make sense of the impact of Charlottesville even as I worked to put the pieces together.

So far I have done at least 25 interviews with newspaper reporters from around the country and beyond, including Montreal, London, and Lisbon. In addition to local television I have done interviews with The Takeaway and even Radio France. I wrote op-eds/essays for The Atlantic, Smithsonian Magazine, Education Week, and CNN.

As much as I would like to believe that my visibility over the past few weeks is a reflection of my brilliance and insight, I know better. It came down to accessibility. It was easy to find me. Just as many interview requests came over twitter as my private email. This website also proved to be helpful in giving reporters and others an overview of what it is that I do.

It was incredibly encouraging to see so many of my friends and colleagues in the field interviewed on television, radio, and in print. Almost immediately after Charlottesville I noticed an uptick in appearances by professional historians. Major newspapers and magazines featured op-eds and essays by Karen Cox, Nina Silber, David Blight, W. Fitzhugh Brundge, Jane Dailey, Eric Foner, Annette Gordon-Reed, Manisha Sinha, and Chad Williams. This list only scratches the surface of the thoughtful commentary produced by some of this nation’s leading historians.

Their visibility in a national discussion would be welcome regardless of the historical topic at hand, but the subject of Confederate monuments demands the careful reflection and analysis of historians that can help the public untangle the complex web of history and memory. Confederate monuments raise important and difficult questions about the history of the Civil War and its results, but they also open up a window into the Jim Crow-era – a period in which the majority of Confederate monuments were erected and dedicated. This period, which witnessed the gradual erosion of civil rights of African Americans and lynching as a form of extra-legal enforcement, is often brushed aside by a nation that embraces a historical arc around the theme of “American Exceptionalism.” It is in connecting these monument dedications to a particular time and place that the historians listed above and others have made their most important mark.

I learned an incredible amount and had plenty of my own assumptions challenged by my fellow historians. The output is overwhelming and will taken time to archive at my #NOLASyllabus page.

It was also pretty clear that those who enjoyed the most exposure were also the most accessible. They have their own websites and/or are active on twitter and other social media platforms.

I consider these past two weeks to be a sort of vindication. My goal when I first started blogging back in 2005 was to explore ways to leverage social media to bridge the divide between the scholarly community and the general public. I wanted to talk about complex questions about how we choose to remember a national past that has always been contested ground and I wanted to engage as wide an audience as possible.

I recently read Tom Nichols’s sobering critique of the undermining of experts in our society or what he refers to as the “death of expertise.” While I am skeptical that we can turn the tide of this trend, I do believe that each of us is capable of taking a stand by planting our flags in the digital landscape.

I am reminded of that voice in the cornfield: “If you build it, they will come.”

4 comments… add one
  • Karen L. Cox Aug 25, 2017

    When you write “vindication,” I think “that’s how the UDC felt.” Sorry, they’ve been on my mind. I also think we matter every week and maybe this can be a mutually beneficial relationship–between journalists and historians–so that we get heard and they have something to deflect cries of “fake news.” Maybe you should link the op-eds for all the historians you mentioned here.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 25, 2017

      Hi Karen,

      Thanks so much for the comment. I do hope no one interprets the title of this post in a way that diminished the work that historians do every day in the classroom, through their scholarship and with the general public. I was just trying to highlight the vital role that historians have and continue to play in helping the public make sense of this debate. That starts with you. The link to Megan’s blog post includes all of the links.

    • Joshism Aug 27, 2017

      Is involving professional historians actually effective at all in fighting ‘fake news’? If people can ignore professional scientists who tell them something they don’t want to hear why not professional historians too?

      I’m quite in favor of the media actually going to historians to get their facts straight, but I feel like it can only do so much.

  • Joshism Aug 27, 2017

    Should I be embarassed that out of Karen Cox, Nina Silber, David Blight, W. Fitzhugh Brundge, Jane Dailey, Eric Foner, Annette Gordon-Reed, Manisha Sinha, and Chad Williams I only recognize one name besides Foner’s? Are there particular books by these authors that I should read?

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