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American Historical Association Annual Conference (January 5-8, 2023)

The American Historical Association held its annual conference in-person in Philadelphia, January 5-8, 2023. The conference made the front page of the Arts and Culture section in The New York Times on Monday after the weekend event. It did so because of a column in Perspectives on History posted by James H. Sweet, the AHA President, back in August on the topic of “presentism.” That column and the immediate response was the subject of an earlier blog:

American Historical Association: Presidential Culture Wars Contretemps
September 12, 2022.

The October issue of the publication continued the fight. Below are the highlights made by those responding within the AHA community.


“(H)is thoughts are risky because … he comes off as a detractor of The 1619 Project and similar initiatives and thus social justice. In the neoliberal university, where utility is the primary virtue, this weakens this historical profession’s standing even more.”
Ken Mondschein

I am not quite clear if being a detractor of the flawed 1619 Project qualifies one as trying to improve the standing of the history profession or weaken it.

“I am glad that James H. Sweet wrote this column. It did what he intended it to do: it opened a particular conversation about how we “do” history…. As much as academic careers can be built on infighting, we daily have the opportunity to bear witness to a different world of possibility: one where historians, sociologists, political theorists, scholars of religion, and others can compare notes and enrich one another’s work without the nagging desires to police boundaries.”
Malcolm Foley

Although he was invited by AHA to respond to the Sweet column, my reaction is that he instead used the opportunity more to express his own views on the discipline of history without really engaging Sweet.

“I felt exhaustion at having to explain the harm of Sweet’s condescending portrayal of African American’s understanding of history and of his attempt, from his influential office, to delegitimize scholarship on essential topics like race, gender, and capitalism (in a manner that has now drawn the approval of white supremacists)….

“Retraction is appropriate because the essay’s flaws are pervasive and obvious…”

The responder than elaborates on how historians in the past have deployed “presentism” to serve “elite political agendas.”

“(I)n exhorting us not to project ‘today’s antiracism on the past, he [Sweet] adopts a moral superiority toward the past that [a previous AHA president] cautions against…. Sweet attacks scholarly work on ‘race, gender, sexuality, nationalism, capitalism’ as driven by contemporary social justice issues.’ The mind boggles at having to remind a fellow historian that gender and sexuality existed in the ancient world…

“To Sweet, The 1619 Project, the only ‘presentist’ book he names, fails as history because it views the past ‘through the prism of contemporary racial identity’ It is baffling that a journalistic effort stands in for historical scholarship here.”

Here the responder is encroaching into a subject that demands greater attention. No one would care if deeply-flawed 1619 Project was by an obscure publication that everyone beyond a fringe niche ignored. But instead it is a publication of The New York Times and is treated not as a journalistic effort but as historical scholarship just as the use of the books by David McCullough would be if included in the classroom [Historians vs. David McCullough – The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West, January 27, 2022; History Scholars versus David McCullough: The American Revolution, January 30, 2022; David McCullough (1933-2022): No R.I.P. – The Culture Wars Continue, September 2, 2022.

“Sweet has contributed to public denigration of the discipline in a time of rampant, politically motivated questioning of humanistic expertise and resource crisis for the discipline. His complaint about a preoccupation with ‘contemporary social justice issues” offers fuel to attacks on the teaching of crucial subjects like race and slavery.”
Priya Satia

One wonders exactly how much sway a single column within the history field carries outside the academic arena.


“I love the well-written article [from Sweet] since it seemed to be based on speaking the truth, and I was very disappointed that Sweet inserted an apology at the front of the article…. Excellent job, Dr. Sweet: keep up the good work.”
Scott Green

Hard to believe Green and Satia were referring to the same column. That difference of opinion is an excellent example of how historians bring their own agenda and experiences to their work. How else to explain the divergent opinions of such magnitude from a single source? What a great lesson in how the history discipline works that two people can read the same column and have such contrary reactions.

“Whether intentionally or not, AHA president James H. Sweet’s misguided critique of ‘presentism’ in historical study plays into the hands of ‘presentist’ politicians who are censoring the teaching of history.”
Allan Lichtman

Is this letter-writer referring to the successful Woke effort to control the very words we are obligated to use in the classroom and in public discourse and to the content in college courses or  to the successful MAGA effort to do something similar legislatively? As the next paragraph makes clear it is the latter. The next three paragraphs are on how Sweet gives aid and comfort to right-wing attacks.


The squabble within the history community led to an article by David Frum in The Atlantic, October 30, 2022, entitled “The New History Wars: Inside the Strife set off by an essay from the president of the American Historical Association. The opening line was:

Even by the rancorous standards of the academy, the August eruption at the American Historical Association was nasty and personal. 

Frum describes the reaction as an “outrage volcano erupted on social media.” Frum called attention to the coverage by The Wall Street Journal as well as by Fox News. He then wonders “But all the Strum and Dang makes it harder to understand the actual substance of the controversy …Why did so many of his colleagues find it so upsetting even threatening?” Here Frum was echoing the comments of Jay Caspian Kang, columnist for The New York Times, as reported in my previous blog on the subject over the puzzlement about this academic firestorm.

Frum visited Sweet in Madison. The non-Twitter user had been deeply surprised by the reaction to his column. Subsequently, he had come under immense pressure. Sweet had discovered that many of his colleagues and in the history-reading public actually had agreed with him …even if they hesitated to say so publicly. Sweet informed Frum that he had received almost 250 emails which were almost the inverse image of Twitter comments – “’long, considered, thoughtful emails, not just 280-character responses.’”

According to Frum, Sweet worries about the move to de-emphasize the single author manuscript or book, a weakening of the cherished ideals and methods of the historical profession. Frum continues that Sweet’s attempted to erect a firewall to protect the academy from politics and power. He observes that such an effort is contrary to the dominant trend in history, especially African and African-diaspora history. Frum predicts academia will lose this battle with the American public. He declares that this quest to replace the ivory tower history with the actively involved historian for progressive social justice is one that will fail.

Frum then reports on some of the skirmishes within the field of African studies. The logical conclusion is it is more difficult for white scholars trained in African history to find jobs.

Grappling with the Past, Present, and Future: Historians gathered to discuss the influence of contemporary issues and what lies ahead – Jennifer Schuessler, (1/9/23 NYT)

With this background in mind, let us turn to the article covering the conference as if it were a sports event. After summarizing salient portions of Sweet’s column, Schuessler reports on the reaction:

The column provoked a firestorm, which spread along racial and generations fault lines. Many younger historians, cosigned to poorly paid adjunct work in a shrinking job market, saw the out-of-touch complaints of the privileged.

There was an opening-night panel at the conference to address the issue. One attendee commented “But some folks felt it as a stab.” A stab in the back? A stab like a pinprick and not a cleaver? Not clear. Sweet sat near the rear, not a participant.

Schuessler reports that the panel was “short on disagreement, and long on juxtaposition and questions, including a big one: Are the traditional methodologies extolled by Sweet an effective tool of justice and truth, or are they too enmeshed in their own racist past?” In other words, the methodology Sweet advocates for no longer is appropriate. I suspect from what I can glean from the article, that the panel was primarily politically correct and may not have reflected the full diversity of the history community.

Another issue drew Schuessler’s attention:

There was little reference to the widespread dismay that the field was (as a participant at another session put in) ‘in contraction if not collapse.   

Schuesssler quotes an historian in the lightning round of closing comments as being blunt: “’We need to talk about money.’”

Sometimes one gets the feeling that academics are like the band playing on after the Titanic has struck the iceberg.

Sweet’s Presidential Address was entitled “Slave Trading as a Corporate Criminal Conspiracy from the Calabar Massacre to BLM, 1767-2022.” He addressed a standing-room crowd which I take to be hundreds of people. For more than one hour, he spoke about a slave-trading family from Liverpool. Back in the 17th century, the patriarch of the family achieved dominance over other traders through a “’gangland-style’” massacre of 400 people in what is today Nigeria. He concluded the family, which still exists and operates today, is a ripe target for reparations.

Sweet then switched gears to speak about presentism. At this point, Schuessler does not fully elaborate on what he said. She does observe that “there was disagreement about whether genuinely open debate was really happening — or could happen. She quotes one historian at the conference saying:

“People are scared to speak honestly sometimes, even what they know to be historically true, because they don’t want to end up on the wrong side.”

These words are eerily familiar to what k-12 students and teachers say along with college students and teachers. Everyone is walking on eggshells trying to get the lay of the land so they don’t ruin their grades or diminish their chances of tenure or promotion.

This culture war puts history museums and organizations in the same battlefield as schools and academic history organizations. While many have eagerly embraced the Woke vocabulary and attitude towards American history others have not. They continue to regard history as they have in the past. As we come closer to the 250th birthday of the country the conflict likely will intensify. People and their organizations will be called on more and more to take a stand on where they stand in the culture wars.

Let me close with an observation made by Frum in his article on Sweet’s column where he reports on the backlash which has occurred.

Critical historians who thought they were winning the fight for control within the academy now face dire retaliation from outside the academy.   

It will get worse.

American Historical Association: Presidential Culture Wars Contretemps

The apology by the American Historian Association President arrived online before the print version from the September newsletter did. It has been a couple of years since a history organization endured a culture wars controversy of its own making:

SHEAR CHAOS: A Culture Wars Train Wreck for a History Organization (8/19/20).

SHEAR, the Society for Historians of the Early Republic, made the front page of the arts section of The New York Times then. The incident involved an on-line presentation at the annual conference about Andrew Jackson. According to the NYT:

[I]t set off a firestorm that led within 72 hours, to set off the ouster of the group’s president, as well as the publication of open letters denouncing the talk and counterletters protesting the ouster. It also caused debate over whether the distinguished academics society was experiencing an overdue reckoning with racism or abandoning its commitment to robust scholarly debate in the face of a Twitter mob.

Almost the same words could be written this time around. To be fair, the presidential position in historical organizations often are one-year positions with the new officers elected at the annual conference.

This time around, the President’s message generate not one but two op-ed pieces by the newspaper’s columnists. So what is going on?


President James Sweet began his column in the summer newsletter by citing a warning from twenty years ago against “presentism.” The warning was a two-fold one:

1. a declining interest among historians for topics prior to the 20th century
2. an increasing tendency to interpret the past through the lens of the present.

The warning from the past said historians would be better served by taking degrees in sociology, political science, or ethnic studies if history meant short-term identity politics defined by present concerns.

According to Sweet, the discipline did not heed the warning. Doctorates for post-1800 topics increased while pre-1800 doctorates decline. Undergraduate enrollments in history courses also declined. The focus became more and more narrowly focused on the 20th and 21st centuries, practically current events one might add.

Our interpretations of the recent past collapse into the familiar terms of contemporary debates, leaving little room, for innovative, counterintuitive interpretations. 

Sweet then posed a provocative question.

If we don’t read the past through the prism of contemporary social justice issues — race, gender, sexuality, nationality, capitalism — are we doing history that matters?

In other words, if one is not attacking white male heterosexuals, is one doing history? That may seem like a distorted oversimplification but examine the presentations at a history conference and see how many do that.

Sweet uses a trip to Ghana this past summer to illustrate the presentism point. He was there for work tasked with writing a critical response to The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story for a forthcoming forum in the American Historical Review, the academic journal of the AHA. When I was writing my blogs on the SHEAR forum on David McCullough’s The Pioneers, I wondered if The 1619 Project would receive the same scrutiny from the history profession.

Sweet wondered if this journalistic exercise into 1619 was history. He acknowledged that he had never thought of it primarily as history. Instead he watched as it became part of a zero-sum game of heroes and villains viewed through the prism of contemporary racial identity.

While in Ghana, he visited Elmina, one of the largest Atlantic slave-trading depots in West Africa, for a wedding. The location was an interesting one to say the least given the current questions over plantation weddings here in the United States. However that line of inquiry was not pursued.

Sweet reported on his tour group. He observed that the guide “gave a well-rehearsed tour geared toward African Americans. American influence was everywhere…” He commented that Elmina Castle had become as much an African American shrine as a Ghanaian archaeological or historical site. Certainly it was a moving experience for the African Americans in his tour.

But as an historian of African and the African diaspora, he detected problems.

I am troubled by the historical erasures and narrow politics that these narratives convey.

1. Less than 1% of the Africans at Elmina Castle went to North America – they went to Brazil and the Caribbean.
2. Besides the few who did arrive in 1619, what about the “shipboard kin” who ended up in Mexico, Bermuda, and Jamaica?

Do efforts to claim a usable African American past reify elements of American hegemony and exceptionalism such narratives aim to dismantle?  

Can you sense the Woke backlash brewing?

But Sweet wasn’t done yet. He went on to call to task the Ghanaian tour guide spin on the Middle Passage.

The Elmina tour guide claimed that “Ghanaians” sent their “servants” into chattel slavery unknowingly.   

Doesn’t that sound like something from a Confederate textbook?

The guide made no reference to warfare or Indigenous slavery, histories that interrupt assumptions of ancestral connections between modern-day Ghanaians and visitors from the diaspora.

Think of the classic soap opera storyline where two people in love suddenly learn that they were siblings separated at infancy when put up for adoption. Now we have the situation where your Ghanaian ancestor enslaved my African ancestor and sold that person to Europeans. With all the African immigrants to the United States there are bound to have been some with ancestors who participated in the slave trade.

Sweet takes aim at an upcoming movie The Woman King that spins (whitewashes?) the African past.

In fact they [Dahomey’s female warriors and King Ghezo] promoted it [European slave trade]. Historicall accurate renderings of Asante or Dahomean greed and enslavement apparently contradict modern-day political imperatives.

In my blogs on historians and McCullough, I raised the point of academics telling the audience that their ancestors were monsters. Apparently here, the Africans who did the enslaving and slave trading with the Europeans, receive the same treatment the white people in The Pioneers received to the detriment of McCullough.

Sweet writes:

The erasure of slave-trading African empires in the name of political unity is uncomfortably like right-wing conservative attempts to erase slavery from school curricula in the United States, also in the name of unity.


The backlash for these presidential musings was fast and furious. I am not going to even attempt to recount them here. Keep in mind these comments occurred within the academic community where the newsletter was published. In other words, presentism was just like critical race theory – an academic construct not intended for the general public. Then critical race theory escaped from the academic lab thanks to one brief segment on Fox. Could that happen here with presentism?

The controversy continued over the weekend, when the AHA then restricting its Twitter account to prevent “trolls,” including white nationalist Richard Spencer, from commenting further on the matter.

“A conversation about history has been invaded by trolls uninterested in civil discourse in last 12 hrs. This is appalling. Therefore conversation is temporarily limited to our community. AHA condemns all harassment of members of our community & others who replied in good faith.”

It also led to the aforementioned online apology which may or may not appear in the next print version of the newsletter.

My September Perspectives on History column has generated anger and dismay among many of our colleagues and members. I take full responsibility that it did not convey what I intended and for the harm that it has caused. I had hoped to open a conversation on how we “do” history in our current politically charged environment. Instead, I foreclosed this conversation for many members, causing harm to colleagues, the discipline, and the Association….

I sincerely regret the way I have alienated some of my Black colleagues and friends. I am deeply sorry. In my clumsy efforts to draw attention to methodological flaws in teleological presentism, I left the impression that questions posed from absence, grief, memory, and resilience somehow matter less than those posed from positions of power. This absolutely is not true. It wasn’t my intention to leave that impression, but my provocation completely missed the mark.

Once again, I apologize for the damage I have caused to my fellow historians, the discipline, and the AHA. I hope to redeem myself in future conversations with you all. I’m listening and learning.


Jay Caspian Kang put the history contretemps in its place with some casually scathing putdowns:

Sweet found himself in the middle of one of the confusing messes that pop up from time to time in the highest reaches of academia…..

What followed was a seemingly harmless missive about presentism…

One should note that academic commenters on the Presidential message were “furious” and “in tears” for this “racist” and “damaging” writing. The call was not simply for an apology but for a retraction. Quite a contrast in reactions and an illustration of the disconnect between the history academic community and the “general public.” And Sweet tried so hard to be “sensitive” and still the response against him was intense.

Kang’s interest is in the precise history Sweet objects to. He asserts that a good Twitter thread will reach far more people and far more quickly than a documentary (yet alone a monograph).

Professor Sweet’s mistake is that he seems to believe that there is a type of real history — the exact type that’s produced by credentialed people in lofty spaces — actually should be used in this way…

In the real world, this means one bad Twitter thread also will reach far more people and more quickly (COVID hoax) as well. It also means the next David McCullough need only be an expert in social media and not have to write a book. Or why not watch Yellowstone and its prequel to learn about Montana history?

A few days later the second op-ed piece appeared by Bret Stephens. He wrote about Sweet’s “groveling apology” in response to “howls of protest on Twitter from left-wing academics.” Stephens suggests that Sweet “probably did not realize in the cancel culture we inhabit, apologies intended as bids for forgiveness are almost invariably taken as admissions of guilt.

Stephens then recounts the Elmina Castle material from the President’s message. Then he unloads:

… his column — which bent over backward to showcase his liberal bona fides — ignited the usual progressive furies. Anyone looking for further confirmation that modern academia has become a fundamentally ideological and coercive exercise masquerading as a scholarly and collegial one need to have looked no further. It will be interesting to see if Sweet manages to hold onto his post as the American Historical Association’s president.

Note to Stephens: The same issue of the newsletter lists the next President and other officers for the coming year.

Putting that aside, there are several observations which can be made.

1. The contretemps highlights the fears students on the wrong side of the culture wars must feel if by mistake or because of a requirement for their major they venture into the wrong class.

2. Sweet’s criticism in the Elmina Castle incident were primarily directed against the local tour guide, the tourists who expect a positive message when visiting a site (like a plantation), and moviemakers. None of them are really AHA scholars. He would have benefited from better editing to make the point.

3. Should Historians Leave the Ivory Tower and Become Social Advocates?: The Political Consequences (November 1, 2021) was the title of my blog about an article by Karlos K. Hill entitled “Community-Engaged History: A Reflection on the 100th Anniversary of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre” in American Historical Review. Hill doesn’t retreat from the idea that scholars should not be ivory-tower academics, he owns it.

4. “Presentism” is too strange a term to have the same impact as “critical race theory” in the culture wars.

5. The incident does not bode well for debate on culture war topics. As the 250th anniversary of the birth of the country approaches, AHA is not positioned to take a leadership role in the discussion about the event. There is nothing to suggest that the organization as whole has the necessary skills to negotiate the chasm which exists within the American people. Then again, who does?< Clearly Sweet touched a raw nerve among many members of the guild. One may anticipate that Project 1619 review similarly will lead to howls of anguish once the AHA forum is published. That contretemps is far more likely to explode into the general public arena given the school –board debates and political posturing which have occurred so far. Batten down the hatches