James Sweet writes a compelling piece on history, gets pilloried by the woke mob, then apologizes for his heresy.
How Sweet It Isn’t: American Historical Association President James Sweet Abjectly Cringes Before the Woke Mob
James Sweet seems like a decent historian and maybe even a good man. Here are his page’s vitae: “Sweet has served in various professional leadership positions. At UW-Madison, he directed the African Studies Program (2012-2013), chaired the Department of History (2013-2016), and chaired the Department of Spanish and Portuguese (2017-2020). He is a book series editor for the University of Wisconsin Press. He also sat on the editorial boards of Luso-Brazilian Review, The Americas, and Journal of Africana Religions. He was elected Councilor of the Research Division of the American Historical Association (2016-2019). He is the president of the American Historical Association (AHA), the largest organization of its kind in the world and the oldest professional organization of historians in the United States.
He believes that mentoring and teaching extend beyond the university classroom. He coached football at Madison West High School (2017-2022) and has previously volunteered for the YMCA. In 2016, he won Dane County’s YMCA Volunteer of the Year Award.” His website is peppered with Sweet photos showing him with football players that he has mentored, and this piece should be noted for teens of color.
And lest Sweet be thought the second coming of peerless conservative historian Victor Davis Hanson, or even the late David McCullough, Sweet’s core teaching has brought him face to face with arguably the worst aspect of American history and one that a progressive historian would readily approve, “Sweet’s teaching interests center on Africans and their descendants in the broader world. He teaches courses on comparative slavery, race and nation in the Atlantic world, comparative world history, Brazil’s history, and South Africa’s history. Sweet is an award-winning undergraduate history teacher; in 2017, the senior class voted him to be their commencement speaker.” His website features an inset of a map of the West African coast, slave central in the modern era.
So Sweet would seem the perfect president of the leftist American Historical Association.
Alas, to pursue more accurate history, to, in what I would deem, conserve the historical process, Sweet contended with a now decades-old trend within history driven by the progressive left. Before we get to his heresy, let’s first learn about the AHA. “The American Historical Association promotes historical work and the importance of historical thinking in public life. Incorporated by Congress in 1889, its mission to enhance the work of historians also encompasses academic freedom, professional standards and ethics, innovative scholarship and teaching, and international collaboration. As the largest membership association of professional historians in the world (over 11,500 members), the AHA serves historians in a wide variety of professions and represents every historical era and geographical area.” Well, so far, so good, something I could really sink my teeth into. But, as a recurring theme of this blog notes, it is an institution like the ACLU or the FBI that has succumbed to woke ideology:
So why is Sweet in hot water? For a piece, I personally agree with a lot of his content. I will be quoting at length here to illustrate what some see as apostasy and what I see as commonsensical. Much of this I would write myself.
“Twenty years ago, in these pages, Lynn Hunt argued, “against presentism.” She lamented historians’ declining interest in topics prior to the 20th century, as well as our increasing tendency to interpret the past through the lens of the present. Hunt warned that this rising presentism threatened to “put us out of business as historians.” If history was little more than “short-term . . . identity politics defined by present concerns,” wouldn’t students be better served by taking degrees in sociology, political science, or ethnic studies instead?
The discipline did not heed Hunt’s warning. From 2003 to 2013, the number of PhDs awarded to students working on topics post-1800, across all fields, rose 18 percent. Meanwhile, those working on pre-1800 topics declined by 4 percent. During this time, the Wall Street meltdown was followed by plummeting undergraduate enrollments in history courses and increased professional interest in the history of contemporary socioeconomic topics. Then came Obama, and Twitter, and Trump. As the discipline has become more focused on the 20th and 21st centuries, historical analyses are contained within an increasingly constrained temporality. Our interpretations of the recent past collapse into the familiar terms of contemporary debates, leaving little room for the innovative, counterintuitive interpretations. This trend toward presentism is not confined to historians of the recent past; the entire discipline is lurching in this direction, including a shrinking minority working in premodern fields.”
So far, so good from both my and the usual academic orthodoxy, but here is where Sweet leaves the common path, “If we don’t read the past through the prism of contemporary social justice issues—race, gender, sexuality, nationalism, capitalism—are we doing history that matters? This new history often ignores the values and mores of people in their own times, as well as changes over time, neutralizing the expertise that separates historians from those in other disciplines. The allure of political relevance, facilitated by social and other media, encourages a predictable sameness of the present in the past. This sameness is ahistorical, a proposition that might be acceptable if it produced positive political results. But it doesn’t.”
At this point, one can almost see most denizens with the historical bunkers of the academy begin chanting “shame, shame” and ready to flog Sweet through streets in a similar vein to Game of Throne’s Cersei Lannister.
As an expert in the Slave trade, Sweet would know two things. First, that slavery had been with us a long time. And that part of the ending of the slave trade came through Western interventions on the part of the British. Not that Sweet would call that out, but he understands that looking at the evils of slavery through the prism of 2022 thinking misses the fact that among those engaging in the practice, it was something common for the first 4,000 years of human history. Second, ending slavery was the new thing, not the practice itself. But for an academy that demands that history be seen through these prisms, Sweet is committing blasphemy. Shame!
And he doubles down, “In many places, history suffuses everyday life as presentism; America is no exception. We suffer from an overabundance of history, not as a method or analysis but as anachronistic data points for the articulation of competing politics. The consequences of this new history are everywhere. I traveled to Ghana for two months this summer to research and write, and my first assignment was a critical response to The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story for a forthcoming forum in the American Historical Review. Whether or not historians believe there is anything new in the New York Times project created by Nikole Hannah-Jones, The 1619 Project is a best-selling book that sits at the center of current controversies over how to teach American history. As journalism, the project is powerful and effective, but is it history?”
I have argued for years now that the answer is no; it is rather a series of opinions dressed up in the false patina of history to achieve a relevance that no opinion piece would warrant. And the project has now been adopted into thousands of school districts. But, again, if this were just opinion, it would never have such traction. But despite its poor scholarship and inept positioning, it came to Sweet’s attention as no opinion piece would merit. And Sweet does not end there. Instead, he calls forth the core of this podcast’s very argument that history has been bastardized for ideological purposes, first from the progressives supporting ever larger government in the early and mid-20th century. Then, as Sweet has noted, the DEI crowd today.
“When I first read the newspaper series that preceded the book, I thought of it as a synthesis of a tradition of Black nationalist historiography dating to the 19th century with Ta-Nehisi Coates’s recent call for reparations. The project spoke to the political moment, but I never thought of it primarily as a work of history. Ironically, professional historians’ engagement with the work seemed to lend it historical legitimacy. Then the Pulitzer Center, in partnership with the Times, developed a secondary school curriculum around the project. Local school boards protested the characterization of Washington, Jefferson, and Madison as unpatriotic owners of “forced labor camps.” Conservative lawmakers decided that if this was the history of slavery being taught in schools, the topic shouldn’t be taught at all. For them, challenging the Founders’ position as timeless tribunes of liberty was “racially divisive.” At each of these junctures, history was a zero-sum game of heroes and villains viewed through the prism of contemporary racial identity. It was not an analysis of people’s ideas in their own time, nor a process of change over time.”
Naming my podcast and blog, Conservative Historian suggests rigid adherence to my own ideology. But the real fight is over historiography. The conservatism of this blog is to conserve historiography by assembling the facts and making historical conclusions.
Sweet demonstrates this here, “Yet as a historian of Africa and the African diaspora, I am troubled by the historical erasures and narrow politics that these narratives convey. Less than one percent of the Africans passing through Elmina arrived in North America. The vast majority went to Brazil and the Caribbean. Should the guide’s story differ for a tour with no African Americans? Likewise, would The 1619 Project tell a different history if it considered that the shipboard kin of Jamestown’s “20. and odd” Africans also went to Mexico, Jamaica, and Bermuda? These are questions of historical interpretation, but present-day political ones follow: Do efforts to claim a usable African American past reify elements of American hegemony and exceptionalism such narratives aim to dismantle?”
Note his core argument. I am using a numerical fact to illustrate where the African slave diaspora ended up in contradiction to the premise of the 1619 Project, or reparation seekers. Sweet uses facts to craft his narrative, not the other way around.
He finishes with this, “In his dissent to NYSRPA v. Bruen, Justice Stephen Breyer disparagingly labels the majority’s approach “law office history.” However, he recognizes that historians engage in research methods and interpretive approaches incompatible with solving modern-day legal, political, or economic questions. He argues that history should not be the primary measure for adjudicating contemporary legal issues.
Professional historians would do well to pay attention to Breyer’s admonition. The present has been creeping up on our discipline for a long time. Doing history with integrity requires us to interpret elements of the past not through the optics of the present but within the worlds of our historical actors. Historical questions often emanate out of present concerns, but the past interrupts, challenges, and contradicts the present in unpredictable ways. History is not a heuristic tool for the articulation of an ideal imagined future. Rather, it is a way to study the messy, uneven process of change over time. When we foreshorten or shape history to justify rather than inform contemporary political positions, we not only undermine the discipline but threaten its very integrity.”
The backlash to this reasonable argument came fast and furious. One historian, Walter D. Greason, is described as the foremost historian of digital pedagogy and community preservation. He is a professor and chair of the history department at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota. He wrote, “Maintaining a rigid rejection of new voices under the banner of ‘presentism’ only reinforces the segregationism that shaped the profession through the twentieth century. As an essay, IHH begins with a faulty premise about the 1619 Project and recent journalism that incorporates historical themes. The indictment of historical work that engages in current policy debates and social justice work negates whole areas of work (notably, women’s history, LGBTQ history, social history of capitalism, and the whole range of Ethnic Studies fields) that have enriched the profession immeasurably over the last sixty years.”
What Greason is saying is especially interesting. He is linking history study to ethnic studies, one of the past and one of the present, thus displaying Sweet’s concern about injecting present mores into the past. Greason does not do this unknowingly, but in his work, with glee.
Here is a selection from Historians.org, the parent site of the AHA; Priya Sitya, a History professor at Stanford, wrote, “My email to the AHA about president James H. Sweet’s damaging column elicited an invitation to respond. I felt it a duty to accept, as someone in a secure position and author of a recent history of the discipline’s political engagement. But rather than honored, I felt exhaustion at having to explain the harm of Sweet’s condescending portrayal of African Americans’ understanding of history and 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).”
Satya’s remarks were of a piece, and let’s be clear, it was not just Hannah Jones and Coates singled out for concern. Sweet also took shots at Samuel Alito for the sin of a Dobbs to once again affirm Sweet’s leftist bona fides. But it was not nearly enough.
Jay Caspian Kang, writing a hilariously titled piece called “The Creep of History” in the New York Times, notes, “I agree with Sweet on the fundamentals of what he said, but I also understand why minority scholars felt like the integrity of their work was being questioned. An uncharitable reader might accuse him of singling out scholars who write about identity (read: primarily nonwhite scholars) and making unfounded insinuations about the motivations behind their work.
Phillip W. Magness, writing for the American Institute of Economic Research, in the subtly titled, “The Suicide of the American Historical Association,” Sweet offered a gentle criticism of the New York Times’s 1619 Project as evidence of this pattern. Many historians embraced the 1619 Project for its political messages despite substantive flaws of fact and interpretation in its content. Sweet thus asked: “As journalism, the project is powerful and effective, but is it history?”
Within moments of his column appearing online, all hell broke loose on Twitter. Incensed at even the mildest suggestion that politicization is undermining the integrity of historical scholarship, the activist wing of the history profession showed up on the AHA’s thread and began demanding Sweet’s cancellation. Cate Denial, a professor of history at Knox College, led the charge with a widely-retweeted thread calling on colleagues to bombard the AHA’s Executive Board with emails protesting Sweet’s column. “We cannot let this fizzle,” she declared before posting a list of about 20 email addresses.”
And here we again witness the disingenuous nature of the 1619 Project and its author. In the first iteration in 2019 (conveniently, the fixed date of the first slave in America coincided with the 400 years later), the contention was 1619 was the “true founding” of our nation. “Those who do are at most a tiny fraction of those who can tell you that 1776 is the year of our nation’s birth. What if, however, we were to tell you that this fact, which is taught in our schools and unanimously celebrated every Fourth of July, is wrong and that the country’s true birth date.”
Since this was so patently ridiculous, Hannah Jones, in a revised edition, eliminated that language, and now she says this, “One thing in which the right has been tremendously successful in getting media to frame stories in their language and through their lens,” wrote Hannah-Jones in a subsequently deleted tweet. “The #1619Project does not argue that 1619 is our true founding. We know this nation marked its founding in 1776.” I love the “this nation,” not our nation, as if Hannah Jones were from some other place and wished to wash her hands of this tainted Republic despite making millions from this project.
And as for the charge of 1619 being history, she states, “I’ve always said that the 1619 Project is not History; it is a work of journalism that explicitly seeks to challenge the national narrative; it has always been as much about the present as it is the past.”
The problem in our digital age is that everything is preserved, and thank god I happen to have an original copy of the project from 2019, “The goal of The 1619 Project, a major initiative from The New York Times that this issue of the magazine inaugurates, is to reframe American history by considering what it would mean to regard 1619 as our nation’s birth year. Doing so requires us to place the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are as a country.” Funny, I would take the concept of “reframing history” to mean that the project is in fact history. Later she writes of the year 1619, “Though the exact date has been lost to history (it has come to be observed on Aug. 20), that was when a ship arrived at Point Comfort in the British colony of Virginia, bearing a cargo of 20 to 30 enslaved Africans. Their arrival inaugurated a barbaric system of chattel slavery that would last for the next 250 years.” Call me crazy or just a guy who likes preserving original source material, but that sounds like history. Flawed, inaccurate, but history.
Magness writes, “In this branch of academia, it does not matter whether the 1619 Project was truthful or factually accurate. The only concerns are whether its narrative can be weaponized for a political cause or used to deflect scrutiny of the same. Unfortunately, as is often the case in the pseudo-moralizing political crusades of academia, the loudest demands against Sweet also came from the least-productive academics – historians with thin CVs and little original scholarly research to their names. However, they do maintain 24/7 Twitter feeds of progressive political commentary.
Lora Burnett, one of the more vocal cancellation crusaders after the initial article posted, scoffed at Sweet, announcing, “this apology was basically, ‘sorry I made you sad, but I’m still right.” She continued: “lamenting ‘inartful expression’ is apparently easier than admitting to flawed argument, unsupported claims, and factually incorrect assertions.” Note that Burnett and the other detractors never bothered to explain how Sweet’s argument was flawed or unsupported. Nor did they attempt to pen a rebuttal, which could have produced a constructive dialogue about the role of political activism in shaping historical scholarship. Instead, it was sufficient to denounce him as guilty for holding the wrong opinions.”
Meanwhile, the rest of the world began to take notice of the bizarre spectacle playing out at the primary professional organization for a major academic discipline. As criticisms mounted on the AHA’s Twitter feed, the organization moved to shut down the debate entirely. They locked their Twitter account and posted a message to members denouncing the public blowback as the product of “trolls” and “bad faith actors.”
One of the results of all this was a highly disappointing apology from Sweet for these heresies.
The words cringe or abject does not do this justice, “My September Perspectives on History column has generated anger and dismay among many of our colleagues and members. I take full responsibility for not conveying what I intended and for the harm it 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. If my ham-fisted attempt at provocation has proven anything, it is that the AHA membership is as vocal and robust as ever. If anyone has criticisms that they have been reluctant or unable to post publicly, please feel free to contact me directly.”
Ham-fisted? Sweet had the temerity to introduce facts into the slavery debate and even called out 1619 for doing history, something which they claimed, then refuted. All he did was note the confusion.
“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.”
Wait what? Keep in mind, he is not talking of the anger and grief of the slaves he reports on but rather his colleagues. These are people who teach in American universities, have tenure, work about 9-10 months in a year, and live in the greatest of nations at the best of times.
Yet the victimology is so profound that he has to manage their anger and grief at what? Getting to be a university professor?
“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.”
In a way, I get it. He does not want to lose his perch as AHA president and really does not want to lose his cushy, nine months a year, tenured teaching gig. I can see the allure for a guy who worked in the business trenches doing routine 60-hour work weeks for nearly 30 years. But Sweet is not a business person nor even a politician. He is a historian. Worse, he is supposed to be a leader of historians, and this Uber cringe is a detriment to his profession and his own professional competence.
In 2019 columnist Peggy Noonan wrote about Maoist struggle sessions, “The spirit of the struggle session is all over Twitter. On literary Twitter social justice, warriors get advance copies of new books and denounce them for deviationism—as insensitive, racist, appropriative, and anti-LGBTQ. Books on the eve of publication have been pulled, sometimes withdrawn by authors who apologize profusely. Everyone’s scared. And the tormentors are not satisfied by an apology. Instead, they’re excited by it and prowl for more prey.” Seem a little familiar?
Not all comments were negative; once the pushback began in support of Sweet, only then did AHA shut things down. However, here is one that you will not see on that feed from Malcolm Foley, Malcolm Foley, Director of the Black Church Studies Program at Truett Seminary at Baylor College, noted. “I’m 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, something that Sweet, in his apology, noted as his initial wish. There is much to reflect on from his piece, whether it is the continuing redefinition of “identity politics” away from its radical coining or it’s singling out of The 1619 Project as a point of critique. I want to widen the conversation, however, and make a suggestion about the relationship between history and politics—namely, that the relationship is necessary. If we flee from it, we do our students and our world a disservice.
Columnist Brett Stephens neatly summarized what Sweet was trying to do and what our history should be, “Put another way, Sweet was warning that historians risked doing an injustice both to their profession as well as to the past itself by falling victim to “the allure of political relevance. His main example came from a recent visit to the Elmina Castle in Ghana, which had once been one of the principal sites of the Atlantic slave trade. These days, he wrote, the castle has become a kind of shrine for African Americans seeking a place to memorialize enslaved ancestors. Above all, historians should make us understand the ways in which the past was distinct. This shouldn’t prevent us from making moral judgments about it. But we can make better judgments, informed by the knowledge that our forebears rarely acted with the benefit (or burden) of our assumptions, expectations, experiences, and values. There’s a lesson in humility in that, as well as a reminder that we are only actors in time whose most cherished ideas may eventually seem strange, and sometimes abhorrent, to our descendants.”
What happened to the AHA, and by extension Sweet himself, is a process that is 50 years in the making. The gradual, and in 2020, the sudden, take over of once respected institutions by the progressive left, from the ACLU to Amnesty International, the American Medical Association to even the FBI, the original missions of these organizations, whether associations, governmental institutions, or even corporations, is corrupted and warped to reflect the left’s ideology. Take over one institution, and you have a voice. Take over most of them, and you have a consensus. Is the United States a racist country? Will the planet over warm and doom humanity in the next decade? Are the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer? Is capitalism a failed economic system? Is democracy doomed?
When the AHA answers an emphatic yes to this, it may be conjectured; after all, it is a bunch of historians!
But when joined by all of those other institutions and added to most of the media, Hollywood, and Big Education, policies must follow to address these supposed truths.
And yet that is not the end of the story. If this were just about ideology, eventually, the simple historical truths of our nation, our Republic, and our capitalist system, when compared to the histories of the rest of the world and the 5,000 years that came before, conservative beliefs would win out. So part of it is about keeping the AHA focused on progressive beliefs and keeping as one of the many voices calling for the dismantling of the most successful system in the history of humanity to replace it with the same voices shrilly screaming for Sweet’s resignation. But this is just not about ideology but really about something that a petty king along the Indus or some chief on the lower Nile living 5,000 years ago could understand. This is about wealth, influence, and power.
One of the historians who negatively commented on Sweet’s piece, Jairo I Fúnez-Flores of Texas Tech University, wrote that Sweet “is yet another expression of disciplinary decadence & whiteness incapable of valuing the scholarship of people of color, just like the anonymous author of Disciplinary Redlining & Bruce Gilley, the author of The Case For Colonialism.” Funez-Florez was one of those Magness had in mind when he noted thin CVs.
Funez-Florez has the temerity to comment on the work of Sweet but boasts two, yes, count em, two works to his name. For your Conservative Historian, and I have a day job, that is a good month. Thinking of the school where every kid gets a trophy, and every voice needs to be heard. This is, of course, of the dumb school, which states that only a person of likeness could write a history of that likeness. So forget a biography of Martin Luther King Jr. by me or, for that matter, a biography of Jefferson by Ta-Nahisi Coates. And how could Sweet make a career out of writing for the slave trade when he wasn’t one? Of course, neither was Hannah Jones, Coates, Ibram X Kendis, or Jesse Jackson, for that matter. But they were descended from slaves, so Sweet is out, and Coates is in.
I suspect part of this belief system is more about competition limitation than some sort of mental, emotional, or soulful solidarity.
Since only a professor like Funez-Flores could write about Latin America, it limits those vying for that job.
I should also note that of his shockingly limited works is this one. Toward a transgressive decolonial hermeneutics in activist education research. In C. E. Matias (Ed.), The Handbook of Critical Theoretical Research Methods in Education. Yes, this is what your debt-forgiven history major is paying for, and of course, Sweet, being a white guy, need not be right about colonialism.
And what about a historian such as myself? I have produced a book, the Conservative Historian Collected Works (on sale on Amazon). I have produced 132 podcasts with an average of about 3,000 words, or the equivalent of another four books of non-fiction. My work includes a host of historical references, footnotes, and citations. I work under a deadline while doing my day job as a Director of Marketing, with the goal of intellectual and historical rigor. Yet I do not have a Ph.D. in history or teach at a university. You, highly valued listener, comprise my audience. This microphone and the Buzzsprout platform, and Apple Podcasts are my classrooms. I represent a threat (albeit minimal!) to the university orthodoxy. One of the best ways to stop me is to scream that I am but a Luddite regarding matters of the environment or the economy. And being white, I cannot dream of writing about classism or race. So instead of being absolutely excellent at my job, I can be sorta good and still retain my place in the academic hierarchy. Like Hannah Jones, I can become rich and powerful and be feted by the Pulitzer Committee. Poor, naïve James Sweet thought he was fostering an intellectual debate. Instead, he was challenging a new power clique, and they did not like that, not one little bit.