Hope and the Historian
I really liked this Ta-Nehisi Coates essay about hope and the historian, where he rightfully demonstrates that historians show again and again that problems like racism simply don’t get solved and probably never will be solved. Despite narratives of hope within all our political movements–on the left at least ranging from the hopes of the labor left for a socialist nation to black nationalists believing that black independence is inevitable–the reality is that it ain’t gonna happen. Things are probably always going to be messed up in some way or another around the same issues that have been with us for hundreds of years. That doesn’t mean that historians can’t use their skills to fight for a better future, as I do with my emphasis on building alliances between the labor and environmental movements–but narratives that America is great and will only become greater as it solves its problems of racism and sexism and class-based exploitation would probably not be a good book because it would be so laughably wrong. I’ve actually talked about this in professional reviews of labor history books before because these historians predicting hopeful futures with no evidence is a huge problem with labor historians who really want worker radicalism to transform the nation. Unfortunately that then leads to them writing essays that are already utterly irrelevant by the time they are published. Hope has its place in history–but that hope had better be as tempered by the realities of the past and present and the historical analysis itself is. Otherwise, it’s just not going to be very explanatory of anything except for how historians can delude themselves.