When does it count as “American history”?

Here’s an excerpt from a post by Erin Bartram that really hit home for me:

To put it bluntly, I’ve observed the following patterns in how we casually talk and write about individuals in the past.

  • men tell us about “America,” women tell us about women
  • New Englanders tell us about “America,” Southerners and Westerners tell us about regional culture
  • Protestants tell us about “America,” Catholics tell us about Catholicism and maybe also the Irish
  • white Americans tell us about “America,” non-white people tell us about…a variety of things, but rarely America

It’s obviously not as simple as that, but I think when we’re confronted with a dominant versus a non-dominant group, our analytical brains go in different directions; for the dominant group, we go broad, and for the non-dominant group, we go narrow.

Bingo.  I think we all have a tendency to think of “American history” as having a sort of default setting, and that default setting is basically the history of white guys on the northeastern seaboard.  If you’re not white, not a guy, and not a resident of the northeastern seaboard, then we assume that your history is a part of American history, but it’s not really synonymous with “American history.”  Instead, we assume that it’s some particularized subset of history: women’s history, black history, regional history, gender history, Western history, etc.

In terms of race and sex, I’m a member of two dominant groups.  One of the few senses in which I’m historiographically non-dominant is in terms of geography.  I’m from southern Appalachia, so I tend to notice this sort of unconscious “default setting” for American history when it bears on region.  I think even people who are used to thinking about history in a sophisticated fashion tend to assume that Appalachian history is strictly regional history; it doesn’t really count as “American history.”  And yet when you see how extensive Appalachia really is…

By Jax42 at en.wikipedia (http://www.arc.gov/images/regionmap.gif) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Jax42 at en.wikipedia (http://www.arc.gov/images/regionmap.gif) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

…it’s hard to justify the assumption that the history of this region doesn’t speak to American history as a whole.  It’s a pretty good-sized chunk of the country.

Same thing goes for Western history.  Think about the last college survey text you looked at.  Was material on the West more or less limited to chapters on the trans-Mississippi frontier and Populism?  Did the more general chapters on large-scale developments and eras in “American history” take the West into account?  They certainly should have, because once you exclude what we dismissively call “the West”…

By Grayshi, Roke (Own work, File:BlankMap-USA-states.PNG) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Grayshi, Roke (Own work, File:BlankMap-USA-states.PNG) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

…”America” suddenly looks a whole lot smaller.

The issue isn’t that there are concerns that are rightly specific to or more pronounced in Appalachian history, Western history, women’s history, black history, Catholic history, and so on.  Any discipline will develop specializations, and historians who specialize will inevitably engage in scholarly conversations that will be of particular interest to others in the same sub-field.  The issue, rather, is our tendency to see certain sub-fields as nothing but sub-fields while turning others into stand-ins for the discipline as a whole.  “American history” isn’t synonymous with the history of white Protestant guys in the northeastern U.S.  And the best way to drive that point home, I think, is for everyone who works on the history of non-dominant groups to be as bold and daring as they can when it comes to thinking about how their projects speak to the entire discipline of American history.  Don’t think of yourself as a scholar of a marginalized subject; think of your subject as a vehicle to approach American history from a different perspective.

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Filed under Appalachian History, Historiography, History and Memory

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