As the reaction to Ta-Nehisi Coates's essay begins to build, I can't help but feel that historians have failed dramatically. Few of us could ever hope to write with the lyrical quality and emotional punch of Coates, but the basic facts and ideas he's working with are old and well-established. Historians and sociologists uncovered these things--sometimes decades ago--and now they get repackaged in an Atlantic cover story and people find them revelatory.
Don't get me wrong. I am thrilled about this piece. I am deeply pleased that the Atlantic chose to publish it, and as a faithful reader of Ta-Nehisi Coates, I hope one day to write even a quarter as well as he does. But we can't rely on a few superhuman essayists like Coates to get the word out about the basic contours of American history. Shouldn't we be able to do that ourselves? It is unfair and unrealistic to expect brilliant writers like Coates to do all the heavy lifting of translating the best academic work into popularly accessible forms. The gap is just so large. Finding sustainable ways to bridge it is a perennial challenge. One sympathetic reviewer of Coates's article remarked that it is so long because the ideas are too important to be summarized--not realizing that the piece is itself, all 15,000 words of it, a summary. As I wrote yesterday, this is one of its great virtues. In the course of reading it, people are getting snippets of about two dozen key books without even realizing it.
Why can't we do this more often? From the blogosphere to the nightly news, there are routinely stories and discussions that cry out for the perspective that history provides, but its often nowhere to be found except in its most presentist and vulgar forms. (Presentist history is so focused on the present that it distorts the past, using it for contemporary purposes rather than first understanding it). The absence of good history from our public debates stems from a variety of factors. From the outside looking in, many Americans, including professional journalists and politicians, simply don't understand what historians do and don't really understand what knowledge of the past looks like or what it accomplishes. People tend either to be uninterested in history, or to use it for cheap validation of their opinions.
On the other side, historians are often their own worst enemies. As a historian in training, I know the pressure to tailor everything toward academia, leaving precious little energy or thought for more popular settings. Publishing in a major magazine won't help me get tenure. Publishing in an obscure academic journal with a few hundred readers will help me. This is understandable and fairly appropriate, but has perverse effects. Historians begin to talk to each other instead of to the public. It is compounded by the pompous attitudes we adopt, acting as though accessible and popular forms of history are automatically vulgar and beneath us. I believe that this is often a defense mechanism. When your academic book sells 500 copies while the latest drivel from Bill O-Reilly sells millions, you comfort yourself with the knowledge that your book is too serious and important to be enjoyed by most people. To a certain extent, this is basically true, but it is also an indictment of our work. Can't the important also be made compelling? Even if we don't change our academic books and articles, we ought to spend more time after academic publication trying to rework those texts into shorter and more accessible forms that could be published in a magazine or blogging platform.
But in the end I'm not sure what the solution is. Is it simply a matter of taking the time to strip down our work? Or do we need to work to establish more institutional connections between academic departments and popular media forms? I could envision a future where the kind of piece Ta-Nehisi Coates just published in the Atlantic is a capstone, a hook to draw people in, timed with the release of the author's academic book. There are complicating factors though. The more popular the form, the more politicized the subject. Most historians are justly wary of becoming politicized figures. For that reason, perhaps historians do need to rely on others to popularize their work. In the end, perhaps all I'm really saying is this: One of the reasons the writing of Ta-Nehisi Coates feels so different from what you normally read is that he is drawing so heavily on academic historians. More people should do this!