Historians find it hard to be peddlers of hope. A classic New Yorker cartoon shows a bearded historian lament to his psychiatrist: “Those who fail to study history are doomed to repeat it, but those who do study history are doomed to stand by helplessly while everyone else repeats it.” With much wisdom comes much sorrow, saith the psalmist. History is the story of human error battling plaguesome if not overwhelming structural forces, and things generally not going as well as we wish they might have.
And then there are the massacres. When I march in a demonstration and begin to chant, “The people, united, can never be defeated,” it makes me want to lie down in a puddle of tears. Historians might chant, “The people—united, deluded, indifferent, bamboozled—have often been defeated.” Of course, then we’d all give up, and how would that work out? My political life as a professional historian from 1994 to the present offers at least one notable lesson: If you think that things can’t get worse, you’re sorely mistaken.
To tell the sunnier story is a slide toward futility and perhaps a kind of insanity, a march into a circus mirror. This also leads toward disillusionment for those who would model themselves on Martin Luther King, Jr., and find they cannot live up to his legend. (Neither did he, for that matter.) Forcing the happy story means embracing delusions about who Americans have been, which inevitably lead to delusions about who Americans are. You may as well lie to your psychiatrist. “An invented past can never be used,” James Baldwin writes, “it cracks and crumbles under the pressures of life like clay in a season of drought.”
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.
Historians often undermine the hopes that activists live on. We’re like bugs in the breakfast cereal, ruining everything with our digging. Nell Painter’s lesson about the persistence of white supremacy is a case in point. White supremacy has proven itself malleable and persistent enough to say that it will be with America for a long time. It has been compelled to change shape in this era, but not entirely so, and the new manifestations are likely as tenacious as the old. If the unfinished work of Black Power—to create a whole new Black sense of self, or what Dr. King called a sense of “somebodiness”—continues to be taken up with vigor and skill, I think that a serious hit on internalized white supremacy is possible. Some of that has been accomplished, though there is far to go.
But the external structures of white supremacy—not the slogan, not the political program, but the economic, societal and political structures of it—have displayed remarkable flexibility and strength. The engrained white supremacy of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “people who believe they are white” has learned to conceal itself in some ways and has weakened in others. But Coates makes a strong case that the essence of white race politics is self-exoneration and that this truth goes marching on. As in hope and historical narratives, self-exoneration as a driving force will make the bearer crazy, and much of our culture is an illustration, from the well-meaning liberal to the vituperative bigot. As the sociologist Eduardo Bonita-Silva says, America suffers from racism without racists.
Twenty-five years ago, when I was a graduate student, I was marching against some war or other on a cold day, carrying my newborn daughter, Martha Hope Tyson, in my arms in a furry pink bunny suit. (Her, not me.) John Hope Franklin, who must have been about 75 years old, with two good decades left in him, was marching nearby. I was too shy to speak to the great historian. Sam Reed, a veteran activist even older than Franklin, took the baby from me for a moment and stepped over to him. “John Hope, this is Tim Tyson’s new baby girl,” Sam said, gesturing toward me, “and she’s named after you! Martha Hope!” Hope was actually named after her aunt and her grandmother, but I didn’t correct Sam because I didn’t really mind if John Hope Franklin knew that I adored him. We didn’t stop that war, or the next one, either, but I still love Hope. And I have hope, too, history or no history.
We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to firstname.lastname@example.org.