Representation, re-examination, and radicalism: that is history now


In June 2020, shortly after a statue of Stuart merchant and slaveholder Edward Colston was toppled and thrown into Bristol docks, Prime Minister Boris Johnson declared that ‘We cannot now try to edit or censor our past. We cannot pretend to have a different history.’ Amid Black Lives Matter protests in the United States and a renewed stirring of the Rhodes Must Fall movement in Oxford, Johnson initiated a fresh assault in the Conservative government’s effort to co-opt the study of history into a culture war. Efforts to revise the historical record, to address the troubling flashpoints and refocus our attention on neglected communities is, in their formulation, an act of present-centric “wokeness”. The minister responsible for universities called action to “decolonise the curriculum” a ‘whitewashing’ of history (itself an ironic choice of words) tantamount to practices in the former Soviet Union. Even the National Trust was piled on for a September 2020 report announcing it would investigate links between its country houses and histories of imperialism. The case for an expert re-examination of history as a discipline, both in Britain and overseas, has rarely been stronger.

This challenge has been met triumphantly by What Is History, Now?, a new collection of essays edited by Helen Carr and Suzannah Lipscomb. It takes its name from the seminal 1961 lecture series, turned book and personal statement staple, What Is History? by E.H. Carr (great-grandfather of Helen). Carr argued that history means interpretation: a radical departure from the empiricism of Leopold von Ranke, whose instruction to present wie es eigentlich gewesen ist (‘how things actually were’) held sway with historians for the previous century. Carr likened facts to ‘fish on the fishmonger’s slab. The historian collects them, takes them home, and cooks and serves them in whatever style appeals to him.’ He explained that the historian would always be subjective, influenced by contexts, opinions, and the argument they were trying to craft. As such, Carr reasoned, history was subject to constant revision: an ‘unending dialogue between the past and the present.’ This anthology continues the discussion and answers Carr’s call – noted in preparation for a second volume of What Is History? before his death in 1982 – for history to provide a ‘more balanced outlook on the future’. It is seen literally in the choice of contributors: majority female; several historians of colour; and a variety of whom are not principally academic historians but screenwriters, Indigenous leaders, museum curators and scholar-activists. The predominantly white, male audience that formed Carr’s target audience (we can assume, not least in his gendering of ‘the historian’) has been replaced by a diverse community that demand their histories told. Sixty years on from E.H. Carr, the study of history is far more democratic, if, as the contributors suggest, much more work is required to give hitherto overlooked groups a ‘way in’.

What Is History, Now? re-examines similarly-titled surveys of the discipline edited by Juliet Gardiner (1985) and David Cannadine (2002). Each collection has demonstrated the burgeoning of historical research from science and diplomacy then to histories of disability, emotions, film, queerness, or the family now. The 2021 anthology is grounded in the priorities of the present, addressing the weaponization of historical memory (statues or otherwise), participating in debates about the line between history and fiction, and inviting us to shift our historical focus spatially from the declining powers of the Atlantic to those neglected in the Far East (notably Rana Mitter’s piece). There are some fascinating descriptions of the malleability of the historical method; notably how historians recover ‘lost lives’ from the archive or use microhistory to illuminate wider themes that transcend regional boundaries. The analysis moves inevitably beyond Carr and his focus on the archive as the historian’s base of evidence, as technology and our understanding of what can constitute a historical source have expanded immeasurably.

A key theme which runs through every contribution can be encapsulated in the title of Charlotte Lydia Riley’s chapter: ‘history should always be rewritten’. That is, quite simply, the historian’s job. Comments like the Prime Minister’s which refer to ‘editing the past’ commit a category error: history is not the same as the past. In rewriting history, representation and frames of reference are broadened, not facts altered. Marginalised groups are reintroduced, as shown in Onyeka Nubia’s chapter on the presence of a small, well-documented Black yeomanry in Tudor England. Historical memory has been distorted by a late 19th century norm – at the advent of race science – which, he argues, has prevented us from understanding English history beyond the white lens. Such norms also engender the ableism that prevents us from viewing the history of disability outside a binary of inspirational success versus pitiable failure, as Jaipreet Virdi writes in Chapter 7. Greater representation leads to greater understanding, and the dismantling of the structures and legacies that have kept history on its narrow, political, “Great Man” focus for so long. Dan Hicks’ excellent entry on historic monuments reminds us that statues should be seen as structures that speak more to the priorities of the period and figures which erected them than what they depict. Toppling Colston was thus an act of historiography that revisited a comforting, self-congratulatory story about a great local philanthropist to bring attention to his role in the slave trade. Postcolonial scholar Priyamvada Gopal referred to a historian’s role as putting ‘the “offensive” bits BACK IN.’ Leila K. Blackbird and Caroline Dodds Pennock’s chapter on Indigenous history also highlights that we should pay attention to who does the rewriting. For centuries, non-Native historians have scrutinised the history of Indigenous peoples while overlooking the damage wrought by settler colonialism, and without recognition that separating past from present ruptures a sacred connection in many Indigenous cultures. They reiterate how much representation matters.

Current historians’ attempts to broaden the scope and inclusivity of the discipline are complicated by voices erased from or never represented in the archive. In a second marine analogy, E.H. Carr referred to facts ‘like fish swimming about in a vast and sometimes inaccessible ocean; and what the historian catches will depend, partly on chance, but mainly on what part of the ocean he chooses to fish in and what tackle he chooses to use’. But Carr overlooks the empty space between the fish, or the areas of the ocean without fish at all. In her chapter on empire, Maya Jasanoff details how British government officials hid and even destroyed sensitive paperwork related to the 1950s Mau Mau emergency in Kenya, shortly before the nation’s independence in 1963. It took a 2011 lawsuit to uncover the remaining evidence, while much – not just in Kenya, but other colonies like Gold Coast or Uganda – is permanently eradicated. On a far larger scale is the history that can only be guessed at, since it was never written. One of my favourite contributions is Suzannah Lipscomb’s piece, ‘How can we recover the lost lives of women?’, in which she elucidates techniques to read “against the grain” or “between the lines” in official documentation. For her book, The Voices of Nîmes, Lipscomb discovered that the Protestant Church of the Languedoc held moral tribunals, free-of-charge, to prevent sexual sin – which was assumed overwhelmingly to be initiated by women. This method of patriarchal policing, however, ensured that testimony from women of all backgrounds would be inscribed, verbatim, in Church records. This allowed Lipscomb to shed radical new light on Early Modern sexual assault from the female perspective. Other cases require a more speculative approach. Lipscomb details how Saidiya Hartman, writing about young Black women in the early 20th century US, uses ‘critical fabulation’: empathetic questions which imagine what might have happened, and thus re-centre narratives away from the (white, male) official record. Helen Carr, who writes her individual chapter on histories of emotion, writes of a similarly open-minded approach to interpret feeling from words in context. With such a vast and pliable evidence base, the notion that history can ever be objective seems absurd.

Words are, naturally, central to the historian’s craft, and how they are understood is another enduring theme in What Is History, Now? Justin Bengry’s contribution on queering the past speaks to the messiness of terminology: how categorisations are received or used by different groups; and how their meanings have changed over time. He contends that ‘gay’ and ‘lesbian’ are identities from the last half-century; same-sex attraction never precluded self-identification as straight in examples from Ancient Greece through to South African gold mines, where a younger man would act as ‘wife’ to an older ‘husband’ (as studied by T. Dunbar Moodie). The label ‘queer’, while an apt term to encapsulate gender nonconformity across vast periods, has itself been viewed as insufficiently inclusive for women. The shared understanding of phrases and proverbs is also integral to vernacular history, the subject of Sarah Churchwell’s piece. Vernacular or folk history is a bottom-up pursuit based in stories told or sayings passed on. Churchwell explains the ‘rule of thumb’ as derived from English common law, as well as dwelling on the cultural and political implications of US mythologies such as the ‘American Dream’ and the Southern ‘Lost Cause’, from which we can draw a direct line to the Capitol insurrection of 6th January 2021. This links back, again, to the propensity of historical narratives to be warped and fabricated to suit political contexts.

Suzannah Lipscomb aptly describes the line between history and fiction as ‘Rizla-thin’. The difference between the two, as the contributors imply, is really one of method. The rigour of the academic historian is expressed in citation – tracking down corroborative sources – and developed over years of professional life. Still, history is practiced beyond the academy, and it would be difficult to argue that Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell trilogy – so meticulously researched that it provides, for many, an entry point into “real” history – is any more fictional than Jacob Rees Mogg’s The Victorians, or Boris Johnson’s The Churchill Factor. There is another irony in Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden issuing a health warning for the latest series of Netflix’s The Crown when his colleagues have produced tomes, researched ‘as if violently looting a continent’ (to quote Dan Hicks), and more primary source than secondary. But the historian has, with the guidance of E.H. Carr and countless others, a clear standard of how she should strive to work. Bettany Hughes’ fascinating chapter on the ancient origins of the historical method shows that our word, from the Ancient Greek historiā, means rational enquiry. Herodotus and Thucydides, widely considered the first “historians”, wrote to interpret rather than find an objective truth. Thucydides considered history a tool ‘so mankind could see more clearly’. Early history had much in common with the epic poetry of Homer or the Sumerian/ Babylonian Gilgamesh of c.2600 BC, which included characters of high status that have appeared in archaeological records. Fiction can certainly help us fill the gaps, fault-lines, and ‘spaces in between’ that Hughes puts central to the study of history. Alex von Tunzelmann’s entertaining chapter on film history explores how Hollywood depictions of the past increase its accessibility to a captive audience, develop their skills of critical thinking (without the Culture Secretary’s help), and allow the viewer to imagine and empathise with times and cultures far removed from their own. If such fictions can inspire and diversify interest in history, that is only to its benefit.

What Is History, Now? is a collection, above all, concerned with widening participation and representation in history. The prologue is entitled ‘Ways In’ and begins by detailing both Carr and Lipscomb’s childhood “discoveries” of history. Following in their example, the reader is invited to develop their personal stake in history, understand why it matters and learn how the historian goes about their work. Chapters by Emily Brand on family history and Gus Casely-Hayford on the importance of museums speak most urgently to this impulse. Brand’s chapter is a celebration of genealogy, a popular discipline which has nonetheless received short shrift in the academy. Amazingly, researching one’s family history was found to be the third most popular use of the Internet behind shopping and pornography. It taps into the human impulse for connectivity, belonging and remembrance, particularly in a fractured, Zoom-laden world. I fondly remember being glued to my laptop for a two-week trial of in summer 2018, discovering family connections from Cumbria to Canada. Casely-Halford, the director of a new branch of the Victoria and Albert Museum to open in East London, writes powerfully on the significance of storytelling, both to him and his museum-curating progenitors, Hans Sloane and Henry Cole. He writes that museums must provide immersive experiences for a digital age. Creating resonance with the local community means involving them in the conception of exhibits and seeking common ground over contested symbols or events. I saw this exemplified recently in the interim display of Colston’s statue at M-Shed in Bristol; currently the exhibit gives a brief biography and timeline of the decades-long movement to remove a litany of markers to him across the city. A poll of local residents will dictate whether the statue stays, and in what form (the statue remains daubed in paint and laid on one side, and whether it is reoriented will surely be politically contested). The arts – film, literature (Islam Issa’s chapter), museums, heritage, theatre – are well-appreciated in this volume; the editors recognise that many people do not find love for history in non-fiction books alone.

This is a vital, timely anthology for the established historian and layperson alike. What Is History, Now? commits firmly to the continued re-examination of the past, as E.H. Carr instructed, without fear of political recrimination. Its breadth of subject matter and contributor speaks to the continued drive to represent new voices and young fields. The book’s chapters are almost uniformly thought-provoking and, in many cases, suggest radical methods to uncover lost and ignored voices. Each gives a list of further reading (or indeed watching) to capitalise on piqued interests. My one criticism lies with the editorial decision to put the most underwhelming chapters, Peter Frankopan on global history and Simon Schama on natural history, first and last.[1] Notwithstanding this, Carr and Lipscomb have crafted the perfect gateway drug for a future history addiction. I share their hope that this feat of representation will inspire new communities to come forward and realise how much history matters to them. To give the last word to great-grandfather Carr, ‘history belongs to us all and by making space for all histories, we can perhaps begin to understand a much deeper, broader past.’

[1] I find Schama is so concerned with showing us his prodigious vocabulary that any insights are obscured or can be pieced together only after a lie down in a dark room. But people probably say that about my writing…