Hope and the Historian

Writers who commit themselves to only writing hopeful things are committing themselves to the ahistorical and the mythical.


I’ve told this story before but, in our continued dialogue around “hope,” it seems worth telling again. Five years ago, I watched an interview with Nell Painter. In the video Painter asserted something that deeply disturbed me—white supremacy is likely a permanent feature of America:

On the other hand, the idea of blackness, that is poor dark-skinned people, I think we will have that with us always, and when we particularly at this moment of economic crisis and this moment in which we have a small number of very rich people and a lot of people who are kind of scraping by and then tremendous differences. We have a great inequality of wealth and income. This group of people who are scraping by, there will be a lot of them, but they will probably be largely black and brown and that will tend to reinforce racial ideas.  So on the upper strata, among these few people up here who are doing very well there will be people of various colors and from various backgrounds, but they will probably not be so racialized as the people who are not doing well.

The point here isn’t that white supremacy won’t ever diminish, nor that it won’t ever change form. The point is that it will always be with us in some form, and the the best one can reasonably hope for is that it will shrink in impact.

Painter is an eminent American historian. At the time of this video, she’d just published a magisterial work—The History of White People. Her conclusions were drawn from that work and a long career spent studying the history of her country. And so when she asserts that the racial “idea of blackness” would likely always be with us, she was not merely lobbing rhetorical bombs. But she was saying something in conflict with the historical outlook of many, if not most, African Americans.

The black political tradition is essentially hopeful. Integrationists hold that if black people push hard enough then surely some critical mass of white people will recognize our humanity. Black nationalists believe that if black people only built up their own institutions, protected their communities, pooled own their resources, and started and supported their own businesses, surely we will come to rival any other group in America. Even if they take different roads, both nationalists and integrationists have abiding faith in the primacy of black politic, or rather what black people, themselves, can achieve.

I was raised closer to the nationalist tradition. For many years, even after I grew distant from nationalism, I shared this faith in the primacy of black politics. But the problem is history. The more I studied, the more I was confronted by heroic people whose struggles were not successful in their own time, or at all. To the extent that they were successful, black politics was a necessary precondition, but never enough to foment change. It became impossible, for instance, to think about emancipation without the threat presented by disunion, to talk about the civil-rights movement without the ghost of Nazism or the Cold War. It began to seem to me that black politics was the wind at the American window. At rare moments the window opened and black people pushed through. The window seemed to open for one reason and one reason alone—some threat to white interests becoming intolerable. “Hope” struck me an overrated force in human history. “Fear” did not.

There’s a portion in Tony Judt’s Postwar where he is discussing the repatriation after World War II that sticks with me. At the end of the war there were whole communities of people who belonged of a particular ethnic group—“German” for instance—but had lived, perhaps for generation, in a different country—say Czechoslovakia. Postwar, this situation was no longer tolerable and these communities were subject to deportation back to their “home country.” Judt quotes a correspondent witnessing these deportations:

The scale of this resettlement and the condition in which it takes place are without precedent in history. No one seeing its horrors first hand can doubt that it is a crime against humanity for which history will exact a terrible price.

I read this and expected Judt to point to the “terrible price” that eventually came. But in fact, wrote Judt, “History has exacted no such retribution.” He goes on to say the resettlement was a “remarkable success.” That section hit me hard, because I saw in it a kind of chaos, an argument against justice and righteousness as twin inevitable victors in history.

I think this is a fairly common outlook among many professional historians. Hope may well be relevant to their personal lives, but it is largely irrelevant to their study. Moreover, the search for a crude inspiration, for a narrative which dictates that America triumph in the end or justice necessarily win out, seems immaterial to their actual discipline. I haven’t taken poll of American historians, but I suspect a large number of them would find Nell Painter’s diagnosis—an assertion of the continued tenacity of white supremacy—to be credible.

Indeed, it isn’t just the tenacity of white supremacy—it is the tenacity of injustice. Often, I’ve had people ask if the manner in which Germans came to reckon with their genocidal past gave me “hope” for my own country. I don’t know. One wonders how much this reckoning was aided by the fact that so many German Jews were killed and thus unavailable to participate as actual citizens. Is a “reckoning” with a people you’ve nearly exterminated really a reckoning at all? And we face something very different here—black people are still around. We are still here to haunt the American conscience. Must we be nearly exterminated ourselves to prompt proper reckoning?

This is neither the stuff of sweet dreams nor “hope.” But I think that a writer wedded to “hope” is ultimately divorced from “truth.” 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. Thus writers who commit themselves to only writing hopeful things, are committing themselves to the ahistorical, to the mythical, to the hagiography of humanity itself. I can’t write that way—because I can’t study that way. I have to be open to things falling apart. Indeed, much of our history is the story of things just not working out.