Historian Keri Leigh Merritt defends activist scholars

Historians in the News
tags: Keri Leigh Merritt



Dear readers: the following guest post by Keri Leigh Merritt is her response to the response of the roundtable on David Potter’s The Impending Crisis. Merritt works as an independent scholar in Atlanta, Georgia. She is the author of Masterless Men: Poor Whites and Slavery in the Antebellum South (Cambridge University Press, 2017) and the co-editor of Reviving Southern Labor History: Race, Class, and Power (forthcoming). She contributed part 2 of our original roundtable. 

A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to have dinner with a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist. Most of the historians I know, of course, loathe him. He had used all the same research that several other prominent historians had used. Yet their books sat on shelves collecting dust – most never moved out of a dingy academic press basement. His book, however, was bought and read by thousands and thousands of people, it garnered multiple awards and attention, and inspired documentaries and movies. When we began talking about the key to his success, he revealed that it was all very simple: he just had “the balls to say what historians wouldn’t.”

While I may not always agree with Michael Landis’s intentionally provocative assertions, I still applaud his efforts to – paraphrasing Stephen Berry – awaken a sleeping, complacent field from its long slumber. History is dying out as a major, and yet historians can’t even come up with a coherent response as to why we should save the humanities. Half-assed op-eds blithely blather on about students “becoming good writers and thinkers” and how history can help them get a job in STEM fields.

But how about this: the humanities are important because the study of human beings and human relationships are absolutely essential to the creation of a humane, just, ethical society. The study of history is not only important in understanding the past, but it helps to guide the future. It is the examination of magnificence and atrocity, pleasure and pain, love and loss. It is what gives life meaning; in its highest form it is what makes life beautiful.

As historians flounder around discussing nuance and degrees of distinction, though, others who are willing to make bold and forthright assertions are commanding Americans’ attention. Bill O’Reilly and Peggy Noonan aren’t only popular because they peddle historical lies to white supremacists. In a world where everything is in flux, where everything seems to be careening out of control, people want moral and intellectual surety. They crave simplicity. They want passion about a subject matter. Detached, professorial types are simply not going to inspire anyone to learn more about the nation’s history.

What I see emerging within the profession – especially over the last few years – has been a sharp divide between the moral relativists and the scholars who believe that history does have a presentist purpose. The moral relativists tend to be older, often well-established professors; all of the ones I personally know happen to be white men. The “activist historians,” as I will refer to them here, are in general a younger, more diverse group of scholars, and many seem (anecdotally) to come from poorer or working class backgrounds.

While this divide has always existed within the profession, the activist historians are suddenly starting to become involved at a policy level. They are working to change the world, from prison reform to labor rights to immigration and racial justice issues. They are winning Pulitzers and Bancrofts and selling books in several languages. They are speaking to an American public who desperately (and increasingly) want to hear what they have to say.

Most activist historians, I would assume, believe that there are certain immutable moral truths in this world. We believe that if we had been born 50 years ago or 500 years ago that we wouldn’t harm or abuse other human beings. I have no qualms at all in stating clearly for the record: I do believe there are certain moral truths. I believe in social and racial justice, and in righteousness. The time and place of events make no ethical difference to me.

Along those same lines, I would not be a historian if I believed the past had no lessons for the future. Researching some obscure event or person that does not have any bearing on the present ultimately does not matter to me. We must devote our precious little research time to things that are generative and beneficial to society.

Despite these beliefs, I still find great value in some of the most morally abhorrent historical works. Part of our doctoral training is learning how to sift through scholars’ biases and personal judgements. Horrible racists to the core, both E. Merton Coulter and U.B. Phillips were damn fine researchers, and have produced some excellent histories that I rely upon in my own work. ...




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