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The problem, according to the Howard University historian Daryl Michael Scott, is that it’s just not true. Scott, in an essay in Liberties, coins the term “thirteentherism” to describe what he says is a fundamental misconstrual of the historical record. “In keeping with our era,” Scott writes, “bad history and worse social science have replaced truth as the intellectual underpinning for a great deal of thinking about social change.” I talked with Scott recently about propaganda, myth-making, student protests, and Facebook.
As you explain, the theory that the 13th Amendment allowed for the functional re-enslavement of freed Blacks emerged not from professional scholars but from the incarcerated activist Lee Wood, in the 1960s. It was a powerful tool for consciousness-raising in that context.
I had no idea where it had come from initially. Within the academy, I traced it back to Angela Davis. She didn’t make that big a deal of it — it was a passing comment. A little hyperbole in an essay usually means nothing.
When I started going back and searching, I learned about Lee Wood, the guy who was in prison in California and said he discovered this. He had an epiphany when he read the 13th Amendment among a group of prisoners.
You could understand that. The claim by prisoners is, from the very beginning, a weapon in the struggle to change their world.
But the academics, the people who are paid for their thinking and research, are going along with the movement. They don’t seem to have a critical capacity to say: We see what you’re doing, but we differ with you.
Let’s say you’re an an academic who is committed to the goals of the activists. How do you advance those goals while also correcting the activists’ mistakes about the historical record?
There are various roles for a social scientist or a historian in a movement. Some people believe that the highest expression of intellectual life is to speak truth to power. I don’t believe that.
I believe that the highest role of an academic in a movement is to use your intellect to solve problems, in this particular case to solve the problem of mass incarceration. How do I find a legislative formula that works to get rid of mass incarceration? Is there something in policy circles? Does truth in that environment matter? If someone’s foot is on my neck, my goal is to get the guy’s foot off my neck. You need truth. You need to understand how the guy’s foot got on your neck, and how to use leverage to get the foot off your neck.
There are people on all points of the political spectrum now who are questioning the importance of truth. And if a lie will set you free, they will take the lie.
If I thought that lies would set you free, maybe I would go along with lies. But I believe that you’re not going to lie your way out of it; you’re going to think your way out of it.
If historians give credence to a temporarily convenient lie, are you worried that down the road it may undermine their authority?
It does undermine their authority. It does.
But let’s say it doesn’t undermine their authority. Let’s try that one on for size. They’re passing untruths on to students and people in the public at large — so you have a democracy where truth is not valued. This is the Trump problem. If falsehoods are perpetuated and they win the day, democracy loses.
Black people made 400 years of history in British North America, and all we hear about is racism and slavery.
And what happens to the expert? The social sciences and the humanities are in trouble in this society. They’re not in good shape. All of us are on the way out. If we’re not careful, these disciplines will exist only at the most elite echelon of the academy — and even there, if the professors are understood to be nothing but propagandists, it will hurt those institutions.
Believe me, they’re going to straighten it out. If over time those institutions are being damaged by tenuring people who will simply say anything, they will clean their house.
So everyone should be interested in the truth. This is what we trade in.
What about journalism? On Facebook recently you called The New York Times Magazine’s “1619 Project” and the Trump administration’s 1776 Commission competing forms of history as propaganda.
A lot of people who were involved in “The 1619 Project” are experts who want to have influence. Now Nikole Hannah-Jones, the journalist, is using this expertise to advance a view. OK, fine. But the scholars are the junior partners in this enterprise.
In all of my professional life, academics really want access to the pages of The New York Times. This is very important to people! Particularly the magazine. It has a kind of enduring quality. Sign me up!
Then everybody who’s signed up became a junior partner. My graduate-school-cohort member Leslie Harris wrote a piece in Politico saying that she was involved and she tried to warn them about some of this stuff.
My critique is that Black people made 400 years of history in British North America, and all we hear about is racism and slavery. It’s the most reductionist thing — it’s almost like pre-Black studies.
Why is this kind of reductiveness appealing to large audiences?
Americans in general — and white people in particular — are less interested in Black life, history, and culture than they are in racism and slavery. The whole thing is reduced to racism and slavery for a particular reason: to tell white people that this is a racist country. Racism from Day 1, racism till now.
The 1776 Commission — people try to dismiss it as racism. It’s not as racist as they want to say. It’s liberal American exceptionalism. That was the liberal project of pretending.
The original conservative view of American history isn’t well articulated anymore, but the Lost Cause is the one most of us can still identify. American exceptionalism is a liberal product that becomes everything after World War II — the idea that America is a “set of ideas.” The liberals trace it back to the beginning of time — they trace it back to 1607, somehow. I’m a liberal, but I don’t drink Kool-Aid. I love the idea that America is a set of ideas. I make no bones about that. But I can’t pretend that it always was.
The conservative project would not go that way. The white nationalists — I don’t mean the more recent ones, but the ones who tried to figure out what happened in the ‘60s — would say people like Jefferson got tripped up and stumbled and fell because of the Enlightenment. And even Jefferson’s liberalism works only when Black people are either not here or excluded from the polity. It’s based on a white nationality.
So from the very beginning we have liberals who are a kind of white nationalist and want a liberal white nation, and we have the people in the North who develop the point of view that America should be a set of ideas that anyone can participate in. There are two traditions. But the American exceptionalists after World War II tried to pretend there’s only one.
Conservatives adopt the liberal version, and it becomes what Reagan talks about, the city on the hill. This is how the liberal postwar version of American exceptionalism becomes part of the Republican Party.
It’s ironic, and the irony on top of ironies is that when Trump wants to oppose “The 1619 Project” for political reasons, he goes and commissions some people who come back not with white nationalism but with Reagan’s version, which is borrowed from postwar liberals. They don’t fully comprehend what paradigm they’re working in.
The 1776 Commission ain’t Trumpism. The ones who say the Jews will not replace us — 1776 is not their document! We have this kind of non-Trumpian document standing in for the absence of intellectual firepower from the real Trumpians. They should have asked Stephen Miller. He could have done something for them.
Thank God they didn’t.
The intellectual historian in me would like such a document. But you’re right.
So you’re tracing these sort of myth wars in which positions become overdetermined by the myth that they’re supporting, and no one asks, Well, what really happened?
What really happened — or even, What about other frames or other myths? For instance, the “Atlantic world.” Once you start making worlds, you are making myths. You’re circumscribing the world for your purposes, and you’re tracing origins.
So there are various ways scholars tell their tale. “1619" could have been a set of debates about that, but all of the other perspectives lost out. All of these critiques fell to the wayside in the traditional way that they do: You get a debate between white liberals and their allies, and white conservatives, and everything in America reduces to race and slavery. That’s culture-war stuff.
All of the people who critiqued “1619" on the World Socialist Web Site, virtually to a person, is a liberal. That’s pretty much my crew. Not all of them like me, because I want to talk about white nationalism and not all of them think it exists. But the point is these people have been talking about slavery professionally their whole career. How do you pretend that James McPherson minimizes slavery? Jim Oakes has been writing about slavery all his life. That’s the funniest part. The critics of “1619" are seen as conservatives, and they’re liberals!
Let me ask about another arena where these large-scale historical narratives are getting invoked — campus debates about statues, monuments, and so on.
When Black students hit campus in the 1960s, most of those statues were there, and didn’t mean as much to people. That’s not to say Black students were happy — remember, they were protesting on campus in the ‘60s. These kids did not come to campus and say, “I’m just happy to be here.” They were focused on other issues, though.
Their protest was often about staying relevant to the Black community. That was a cardinal principle of Black student activism, which got the creation of Black studies. One of the primary goals of Black studies was to stay relevant to the Black community, and in an extreme version to help the Black community get the resources and knowledge to wage revolution. These were not people who were sitting on their hands. These were the Black Powerites. They weren’t trippin’ on Silent Sam; they were trippin’ on overthrowing capitalism. White liberals brought them on campus, and the Black students gave them holy hell.
Fast forward: All of a sudden these monuments matter. People tell me they always mattered, and I say: I know better. You might not have liked them, but it wasn’t the center of your politics.
Your public Facebook page has become a kind of gathering place for both professional and amateur historians, especially of Black American history. What does Facebook mean for you as a scholar?
I got started on Facebook for institutional reasons. I was president of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, and there were people talking about boycotting the conference in Jacksonville in 2013 — a boycott around Trayvon Martin’s murder. I got on to fight the boycott. ASALH always lives at the margins. No one has confused us for the Ford Foundation.
What you see me post is, in a way, my intellectual diary. I can always jot a note there, and I can download it and search it. And you can debate ideas with people. You can find out where people are on some of your perennial issues.
A lot of the folks who participate are people who care about Black history and culture, but they’re not Ph.D.s. So it’s not just a social place for people in the same career track. That’s also what I love about ASALH. It’s not just about professional historians, but also amateur historians.
I don’t think history is reducible to the academy — it’s dangerous when it is. The academy is driven by its own concerns. There’s careerism, saying what you have to say to get tenure. There’s nothing wrong with that. But you have a professional ideology at play at any given time.
Most of the people on my Facebook page are not posturing for their career. And I get some who are just simply crazy. I’ll play with them too.
The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.