Traditions of struggle; now, those are a different matter. They are real and they matter and they must be embraced; they speak to our highest aspirations as a species. “The struggle of humanity against power,” writes Milan Kundera, “is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” It would be both misguided and mistaken to leave those traditions out of the story. They are a force in history and often a source of hope, in personal lives and sometimes even in works of history. But again and again, things fall apart, the best hopes are dashed, and history does not offer a happier lesson very often.
Sure, as the poet Seamus Heaney said, sometimes “hope and history rhyme,” and all that. But the poet also said in the previous lines, “History says don’t hope on this side of the grave / But then, once in a lifetime / The longed for tidal wave / Of justice can rise up,” and that right there tells you that the poet, though he hears history’s lecture, is nevertheless smoking moonbeams. Anytime a writer uses the metaphors of meteorology to describe human history, he or she simply has no idea what happened.
In human history, tides don’t rise and fall, floods don’t sweep the land, prairie fires don’t spread. People, usually people working in a tradition of struggle, are sometimes able to organize and mobilize enough people, and those people are able to educate themselves enough through their own experience to make a movement that changes things for the better, for a time, in a place—and these are history’s high points. But they are not the weather. The weather, if relevant, is often bad news, and the best weather won’t help if people don’t manage to raise a sail. Human striving is not pointless, as a rule, but even necessary and noble campaigns don’t often go as intended.
I am a civil-rights historian but also a weary activist of sorts, and I will admit that these roles are sometimes at odds with one another, especially where hopes arise—or don’t. Writing op-eds is a particular challenge. The activists press me to tell a triumphant tale, and I mostly can’t. Historians often aren’t politically useful enough to suit me—I don’t want them to sing “On the Good Ship Lollypop,” just help out like other citizens often do. Speeches and press releases need writing, the movement is always broke, the young people need attention, organizing is hard work and so on. Historians have useful skills. Many are good cooks, for example.
I joke about historians being politically useless, but many make a difference. The 1965 Selma march was packed with historians. In North Carolina, I’ve seen two former presidents of the Organization of American Historians, Bill Chafe and Jacquelyn Hall, along with Bob Korstad, Nancy MacLean, and several other historians hauled off in handcuffs in acts of civil disobedience in the “Moral Monday” movement. Historian E. P. Thompson was a great peace activist and Gerda Lerner a founder of the National Organization of Women. John Hope Franklin helped do the research for Brown v. Board of Education. The crafts of history and citizenship can coexist under one roof, like plumbing and accounting, both of them necessary but without much in common. Few people are good at both. Historians like to think our scholarship is an act of citizenship, of course, but I would hate to try to make a thumping historical case for its effectiveness.