Yesterday our “quote of the day” came from Ta-Nehesi Coates’s reflections on historians and hope.
Here is the quote I chose:
.. I think that a writer wedded to “hope” is ultimately divorced from “truth.” Two creeds can’t occupy the same place at the same time. If your writing must be hopeful, then there’s only room for the kind of evidence which verifies your premise. The practice of history can’t help there. Thus writers who commit themselves to only writing hopeful things, are committing themselves to the ahistorical, to the mythical, to the hagiography of humanity itself. I can’t write that way—because I can’t study that way. I have to be open to things falling apart. Indeed, much of our history is the story of things just not working out.
The best response/question to the post came in a tweet (@johnfea1) from Aaron Cowan, a history professor at Slippery Rock University:
@johnfea1 my question is: who are these historians “who commit themselves to only writing hopeful things”? I’m sure I’ve never met one.
— Aaron Cowan (@aaronbcowan) December 11, 2015
Great point. I don’t know of any historians worth their salt who begin their investigations of the past in search of something “hopeful.” I need to think about this some more, but I am not sure that “hopefulness” is a category of historical analysis. I am not sure who Coates is referring to here. Perhaps he is referring to folks who dabble in the past to make political points in the present. I would not call these people “historians.”
I would also say that Coates is making a theological statement here. His remarks about human nature have an Augustinian quality to them, Coates’s words read like a rebuke to the progressive view of human history that defines our profession.