I thank those posters who have contributed their own thoughts on this question during the past several days. In some cases, the conversation’s reinforced impressions I’ve had, including one that there continues to be a failure to communicate with those who seem skeptical of this whole enterprise. I say that because several of the points raised have already been addressed before, but that doesn’t seem to have made much of an impression on the minds of the skeptics.
First, what “should” professional historians write about? I haven’t asked that question. I’d argue that they write about what they want to write about once they are truly on their own. That is, advisers, a sense of the interests of the profession, professional reputation, and so on have some impact on shaping those choices, but beyond the dissertation, people write about what they want to write about. I don’t know of historians who have been forced to write on a topic against their will.
Moreover, not everyone need write about the same thing, or follow some sort of directive handed down from some supposed source of superior knowledge. The fact is, it doesn’t work that way. All I’ve done is suggest how professional historians might best counter the assumptions that shape the Black Confederate myth. Sure, some historians will demonstrate that the evidence used in support of various claims is frail and flawed, sometimes distorted beyond recognition. Historians do that all the time, so I’m not sure why doing it in this instance has irritated some folks. But I fail to see how a suggestion that historians also concentrate on the story of how enslaved blacks responded to the challenges and opportunities presented by the Civil War is a distraction from some other more important mission. Some people will write on battles and leaders; some will write on women and the war; some will write about common soldiers; and on and on and on. But in writing about the experience of enslaved and free blacks during the Civil War, especially those within the Confederacy, one will inevitably, directly or indirectly, address the underlying agenda of proponents of the Black Confederate myth. Other than that, I have no advice on what professional historians should be doing in that sense. I simply resent being told what we shouldn’t be doing by our peers. That lecturing (again, by an even smaller minority than those who believe in the BCM) simply has to stop, and I see no reason to put up with it. Do your own work, instead of telling me what I should be doing. Otherwise, I get to tell you what you should be doing.
Second, while I have some interest in the BCM, it really isn’t the case that I spend much time on it as a subject of interest. This year three books will come out bearing my name on the title page, and none of them address this issue. Period. It’s not a major research agenda item, except insofar as it has to do with how the general public understands history and the tools they use to find information and learn. Here we can’t deny the growing power of the internet as a source of information, and how search engines and a rather unsophisticated way of assessing websites contributes to public misinformation and ignorance. For those professional historians who write for each other or who care most for what their fellow professionals think of them, you can stop reading now, because we will continue to talk past each other. I note that some of the most encouraging posts come from professional educators who have dealt with the BCM in the classroom, others have highlighted how even uninformed scholars have spread misinformation and misunderstanding. I enjoy having a audience that extends beyond my peers.
Professional historians have no problem highlighting issues of ignorance and misinformation when they deem it important (or even fun) to do so. Look at how scholars flock to correct the fumbled facts of a Sarah Palin or a Joe Biden. By the way, does exposing the errors of such people cause them to change their minds? Nope. So why correct them?
The answer to that (which I’ve said before) is that countering these BCM tales is not aimed at changing the minds of the proponents of the BCM any more than is that to point out the details of Paul Revere’s ride is going to lead to a major confession from former Governor Palin that she messed up. In both cases, the people challenging the misinformation do so for the benefit of an ill-defined audience that takes in what it hears. Without such challenges, the fairy tales go uncontested and become accepted by a good number of people (as we see from teachers who say students come up with this sort of stuff when they go to the internet to do research). That we continue to hear from skeptics that we aren’t going to change the minds of the proponents misses the point, because the critics of the BCM have never said that they aimed to change those minds: they wanted to counter the narrative and its underlying assumptions. For some folks to overlook this response repeatedly suggests that they don’t want their minds changed, either, because that would undermine a part of their critique. This has happened here and at Kevin Levin’s blog, where these discussions went off the rails because some folks insisted on repeating their charges after they had been countered (and they failed to wrestle with the responses to their charges). That is not much different from how proponents of the BCM behave when challenged. Interesting, no?
I also don’t understand how discussion of this issue on the blogosphere sucks the air out of the room. That, frankly, is ridiculous, although it might speak to the inability of some people to fill the air in that room (which is in an undisclosed location) with something more compelling. After all, one can trace this discussion back to a series of observations about the marginal nature of some blogging interests and of blogging, period. So how can something that is so marginal have such a devastating impact on the ability of professional historians to be heard? Surely this is in fact a devastating self-criticism of the inability of professional historians to broadcast their messages due to the activities of a few marginal bloggers who professional historians tend to set aside, anyway. How can these bloggers be so marginal and yet so powerful? How do people who are not minded by professional historians limit other (and presumably more) useful historical discourse? That argument seems to me to be about as bizarre as that embraced by proponents of the BCM.
Mind you, in truth I’ve heard this criticism from precisely one professional historian bearing a PhD. One.
Even the BCM has more proponents than that.
As for the claim that challenging the BCM somehow gives it unintended legitimacy (and thus one should not do it), I haven’t heard the same argument used against holocaust deniers. In fact, I have yet to see a shred of evidence to support this claim. Absent that, I have no obligation to correct someone’s feelings on this matter, and I reject the argument as silly.
Matt Gallman says, “if you ask me about the public good and discourse on Civil War era history I would say that the larger goals are better served by talking about the actions and beliefs of actual African Americans.” I assume he’s read what I’ve posted, asking historians to do just that. But perhaps professional historians need to do that rather than suck the air out of the room by following their own various hobbies, including “memory” as an elaborate exercise in deconstruction that in too many cases is becoming rather predictable (and which all too often forgets that today’s exercise in deconstructing memory is tomorrow’s case study in creating memory). I’ve seen enough hobby horses suck the air out of the room at conventions over the last quarter-century. Was it a lack of will or a loss of will? Who freed the slaves? Was it a total war or not? Give it a break. Somehow, to get so concerned about how supposedly marginal bloggers suck the air out of the room and hamper well-established professionals in their never-ending issues to tell us how to understand (and remember?) the American Civil War is preposterous.
But then maybe that’s why only a single PhD-bearing historian has raised this complaint on this blog, and perhaps we are giving this person too much attention (since we aren’t changing his mind) and allowing this seemingly endless discussion to suck the air out of this room, distracting me from more important work. Just a thought.
Thanks again, everyone.