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Of all our studies history is best qualified to reward our research: A Call for Critical Historians in the 21st Century

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.






Hey, thanks for this call to arms for all those working in historical or history-related areas. I love your idea of a 'critical historian', of the historian as having to challenge mainstream attitudes and stir up public debate. But two questions came to mind when I was reading this:

First, I think you're mistaken when you say that historians have a reputation for failing to connect with public interest or matters of public importance, of being just 'USBs filled with facts' that need to do more to 'delve into the meaning of history for each and subsequent generations.' I think historians have always been concerned about making their work meaningful for the broader public. The problem is: which public? And what is 'meaningful'? When I walk around an ordinary bookshop I find dozens of bestselling works of history that are appealing to the public in a huge way -- but often by telling people what the already know, or already want to hear. In my (Australian) context, you find a big difference in the public exposure of conservative and critical historians -- it's not that one group is better at making its work relevant for the public, but that massaging national pride is a much better way to get public exposure than the kind of critical, challenging work you're arguing for. So I suppose the problem is: how do you become a critical historian and 'ask tough qestions' without being ignored?

The second question I have is when you say that critical historians need to do work that's useful for the people, to become 'people's historians.' I understand what you're saying -- you want historians to stand up for people on the outside and challenge the centre. But what if committing yourself to being a people's historian actually sabotages your ability to ask tough questions? The critical historian seems best suited to being a kind of romantic outsider, an individual whose distance from any social connections frees them to say what others don't want them to say. What if breaking your connection to a community is the price you have to pay to be truly critical?


First, thanks for taking the time for responding and I appreciate your engagement. I apologize for responding so late; graduate school gets busy. I also think that the questions you ask are important, specifically "which public" and the relationship between a "people's" historian and a particular community, in which they define as their own. I'll proceed backward.

I think that distancing oneself from a community is very much a Western thing. What is wrong with being from a community and yet maintaining a critical eye for the history of that community, offering one's insight to the betterment of a community? It seems to be that your assumption is that one can be objective, something that I do not believe. Have you had a chance to read Chapter 17 of the "Propoganda of History" written in Black Reconstruction in America by W.E.B. Du Bois? I think it'd be worth checking out for general reading, but also to more critically interrogate what I perceive to be an assumption about objectivity. This assumption also assumes that those from outside of a community has asked tough questions in general: it seems to be that even in Australia many of scholars of Indigenous people down there (and Whiteness Studies) are just now beginning to interrogate tough questions as it relates to whites and to the Indigenous people. I think Indigenous scholars down there may have been asking tough questions that others may have ignored for years. Here, I'm making the assumption that Indigenous people, or one from a particular community, can speak on behalf of their community and ask whites to interrogate their own assumptions about themselves, something that seems difficult to do.

There are two levels of ways to become a critical historian, I think. The first is to write for the broader academic public and for one's community. This is where intent comes. If one thinks that the only public that matters is the academic class, then I find that wrong. I believe that one can do both the academic work well and work for one's people. An example is the Early Black History Movement led by Carter G. Woodson from 1915-1950. Woodson was the second African American to get a PhD in history from Harvard and was very much concerned with his own people and the academic community, who continued to perpetuate racist interpretations of African Americans during the time period. Check him out, cool dude.

Anyways, thanks for the engagement.