Historians and Race Summary

Historians and Race

The essays in HISTORIANS AND RACE: AUTOBIOGRAPHY AND THE WRITING OF HISTORY are a response to Fordham University’s request for scholars to step outside their training as objective observers of history to reveal to a new generation of students the defining moments in their personal lives, discussing how these experiences have influenced their work. Edited by Paul A. Cimbala and Robert F. Himmelberg, the writing is highly readable and informative for a non-academic audience curious about how history is written. All the writers seem to agree with fellow contributor Darlene Clark Hine about the enormous power of professional historians who decide “what events should be documented and taught, and how things and individuals are to be known and remembered.”

These scholars, two of them African American, do not, however, agree on whether social activism is the proper role of the historian. While Dan T. Carter, for instance, sees moral justice at the heart of the historian’s quest, he speaks against using history in the service of ideology. Leon Litwack, however, sees his task as forcing students to confront the historical assumptions about the role of blacks in American history and to become activists committed to social justice.

While recognizing the tangled complexity of racial issues, these writers seem not to support the beliefs of those contemporary critical race theorists who hold that racial identification so blinds the individual to historical events that racial harmony is an impossibility. These eight essayists, in recalling their life experiences and their own intellectual openness to change, believe that they can transcend racial identity in their interpretation of history, and that their work offers hope for reconciling the divisions that have plagued America from its beginning.