In recent months I’ve been loaning my father various history books. Part of it is to, quite simply, make some space in my apartment. But for the most part, it’s my way of making my parents part of my scholarly life again. As I’ve written here before, my parents are the primary reason I’m in graduate school. Their reading habits became my reading habits. With my father squeezing in some time to read when he’s not at work at his truck driving job, I wanted to repay the favor.
Loaning my dad books like C.L.R. James’ The Black Jacobins, or Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me—just two examples of what I’ve loaned him—has allowed us to have some exciting conversations about history and current events. But it’s also reminded me that we as historians shouldn’t get too high and mighty about who can, and cannot, read what we produce. I like to think that all the essays, blog posts, journal articles, and book chapters I’ve written over the years (not to mention the dissertation I’m finishing up) are readable by people who are outside the academy, as much as they’re for the consumption of academics.
Perhaps not all historians can write for a general audience. When we lament that folks outside the academy don’t (or can’t) read our work, however, we never seem to slow down and think, “Wait a minute. Are we sure our work is that hard to comprehend?” Or to put it another way: is it time for us to stop underestimating what people outside the academy can read, understand, and enjoy?
Again, I only bring this up because I think about loaning monographs to my father and getting his reaction to reading them. Just today, I went home to celebrate his birthday. I was glad to, in addition to handing him his gift, to loan him my copy of Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow and George Frederickson’s White Supremacy. I handed over The New Jim Crow because my father, during casual conversation last week, mentioned wanting to get the book down the road. Wanting to spare my dad a few bucks, I briefly perused my book shelf before finding it and letting out a small whoop of satisfaction.
And Frederickson? My father and I discuss politics daily. I suspect that’s true for a lot of people these days. While my mom and I talk about our days—and this isn’t to say my mother isn’t politically aware, she certainly is—and the mundane, my father and I discuss the president and where the country’s headed. Inevitably we talk about race too.
I can recall every conversation I’ve had with my parents about all the police shootings in the news. The soft but slowly mounting dread in my parents’ voices as they tell me to be careful when going to a protest. The sadness in my mother’s voice when she talks about the young black men shot and killed over the years—and us both knowing it could be me. The simmering anger in my father’s voice, as he reflects upon a country he served for twenty years in the Army still, seemingly, unable to see him, my mother, or me as being worthy of the right to live in peace.
So as I got my books together, I thought my dad would like Frederickson’s White Supremacy. He’s well-aware of how anti-black racism isn’t simply an American problem. I know, at the very least, he shall learn something from that book. And I like to think that more people out there, who’ll never be lucky enough to grace the halls of a humanities building and sit in a lecture hall, will somehow have access to these books and articles we take for granted.
I acknowledge there isn’t much intellectual history in this post. But, perhaps, it will remind you why so many of your colleagues do this work and enjoy it, warts and all.