What is a critical historian in the 21st century?
I was recently told by a long time mentor of mine to not only consider myself a historian, but a critical historian. It has taken me awhile to process this charge. The more I think about it, the more it becomes overwhelming. This connotation assumes that there are those historians who do not have as critical an eye as others. This assumption, in my estimation, is correct based upon the scholarship published, which does not attempt to make history relevant to the lives of young people. While history should add to general knowledge of history, the historiography, it should also be made relevant to those who live today in meaningful and interesting ways. Further, in order for historians to become more than just historical USBs filled with facts, we must learn to disseminate critical history (non-mainstream) into the public sphere, especially the history of people color that continue to be marginalized and characterized in inappropriate ways in historical studies. Historians must take on the burden that Black Studies and American Indian Studies has attempted to uphold over the past forty-years: academic excellence and social responsibility.
What, then, is a critical historian in the 21st century? A critical historian is one who believes in the Black Studies and American Indian Studies ethos of not only conducting history for the profession and ones professional development, but also for the development of a people; one who disseminates critical history to populations who would perhaps most benefit from it, especially used to assist in the maintenance a groups survival and self-esteem; one who popularizes history like Carter G. Woodson during the Early Black History movement (1915-1950s), but with a 21st flair that utilizes the internet and other sources of technology, which can be mass circulated; one who is heavily invested in a particular community not only as a researcher but also as an asset to be used by the people for information, however the people decide (a peoples historian); one who is committed to making history accessible to the hip-hop generation, in order that they may reinterpret history so that it can inform future actions, which can benefit humanity.
A critical historian is one who asks tough questions in order to make the presenter think more deeply about a subject and move beyond the mere ostensible information. History receives a bad name among non-historians not only out of ignorance with what historians actually do, but also because history becomes a measure of recording facts and not delving into the meaning of history for each and subsequent generations. Therefore, critical historians have to make sure that they ask questions that move people to think more critically about a topic.
A critical historian has the responsibility of creating other critical historians. This is not to suggest that a critical historian creates someone in his or her exact field and image; after all, we are not gods. However, the critical historians role is to mentor up and coming scholars and graduate and undergraduate students, to think critically, ask critical questions, be ethical, and perhaps most important, have intellectual rigor. Intellectual rigor is not just working hard, but it is hard work combined with intellectual capacity and social responsibility. In other words, one has to care about what they are doing and do it with an unwavering passion unmatched by anyone around them.
Lets move beyond recording facts and writing boring histories. Lets contribute something to the people that they can benefit from, not just our own professional development.