Building off of LD Burnett’s fascinating piece from yesterday about writing and thinking through historical topics, I am using today’s blog post to think about the importance of reading to that process. In my case, I cannot help but think about certain texts that propelled me to pursue a career as a historian. Such texts have not only fueled my intellectual journey, but have also provided examples of the kind of work I wish to do. No doubt historians all have certain texts that mean something special to them. These are just a few of those for me.
It is not an exaggeration to say I would my journey to graduate school for history began when I read W.E.B. Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction. More specifically, the chapter titled “The Propaganda of History” was a revelation for me. Reading it as a college sophomore, I was stunned to realize that history was, for all intents and purposes, a weapon in cultural and intellectual warfare. Perhaps I already knew that—after all, I (like many other young Americans since the 1980s) had read Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States in high school and already understood how history was far too complicated for one, simple narrative. And, admittedly, I had an inkling of different interpretations of historical figures when, in the eighth grade, I found myself disagreeing—however quietly—with my teacher about Malcolm X (she saw him as a villain, whereas I grew up in a household where he was still respected so many years after his death). But Black Reconstruction was different. It was as though Du Bois took historiography and made it into his own intellectual flurry of punches against the Dunning School.
Even today I still flip through the pages of Black Reconstruction to get my thought process going. I do the same with James Cobb’s Away Down South, especially its chapters on the recent South of the post-Civil Rights era. I consult the book not so much for research purposes as to capture, for a few moments, the flavor of the 1970s and 1980s South. I do the same when looking back at the works of John Egerton or Albert Murray. Although there are some relatively recent works that excel at revealing the complicated history of the South since 1970, reading work from the time period I write about in my dissertation is critical for making me think of new questions to ask as I am writing and researching.
I also look at the works of Barbara Fields when I am thinking about the history of race. Fields’ work on the ideology of race, for instance, is always at the back of my mind when writing about racial tensions and American politics in recent history. And I often see it play out in both primary and secondary sources—when I look at an old issue of Black Scholar or Freedomways, for example. Steven Hahn’s A Nation Under Our Feet is also a work I go back to from time to time. His analysis of African American political agency before, during, and after the American Civil War has lessons for thinking about political agency during and after the Civil Rights Movement.
What we have read as historians, what inspired us to get into the field in the first place, should never be forgotten—or taken for granted. These are just a few books I occasionally flip open to get some inspiration or to jog my mind for another writing session.
Speaking of Reconstruction, I wanted to bring attention to an important symposium coming up this weekend: “Memories of a Massacre: Memphis in 1866.” It will be a fascinating event that will remind the public of the heinous Memphis Massacre of May, 1866. This year’s events are the culmination of a long-standing debate about how to remember the tragedy of 1866. With anniversaries for a variety of Reconstruction-era calamities, such as the New Orleans Massacre of 1866, the Colfax Massacre of 1873, and the Hamburg Massacre of 1876, all coming up, “Memories of a Massacre” has the potential to provide a wonderful example of how to discuss the Reconstruction era with a public audience in mind.