Department of History, June 2020
We have watched the events arising from the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and other Black victims of police violence and white supremacy, as well as the subsequent displays of police brutality and overreach, with a mixture of shock, anger, and frustration. At the same time, recent protests and calls to action in Bloomington, across the United States, and around the world have given us reason for hope.
As historians working in the U.S., we know that racially based prejudice, violence, and injustice have been fundamental features of the development of a nation ostensibly dedicated to “liberty and justice for all.” Our own state constitution, drafted in 1851, opens with the declaration that “all men are created equal”—only to go on (in an article repealed after the Civil War) to authorize police power against any Black person who “shall come into or settle in the state.” But as scholars of many historical periods and places, we also know that the impact of organized racial violence is not unique to this state or this country. It extends both spatially across the globe and temporally, from a time well before European contact with the Americas to our own historical moment.
What should historians do in that moment? Trained to write history, can we also make it? In fact, the work of our profession—researching, studying, teaching, and discussing the past—has long been as much an act of advocacy and belief as it is one of inquiry. Even those predecessors who strived to achieve the “noble dream” of historical objectivity worked to shape—and were inevitably shaped by—the cultures, social structures, and economies in which they lived. To be a historian has always meant to be an activist—whether that “action” pushed toward democratic change or fortified existing inequities of power and wealth. Indeed, by using the past to explain or justify the present, the discipline of History itself—as taught in schools across the country—has helped to rationalize the many forms of white supremacy that continue to keep this nation from realizing its promise as a refuge of freedom.
Today, with millions of Americans united in the conviction that Black Lives Matter, we are reminded of the historic persistence of the human drive toward a more just and inclusive future. We move forward with a conviction in the value of listening more closely, studying harder, communicating better, and finding the language and courage—in our courses, our research, our day-to-day lives—to dig up the deep roots of oppression. Failing to do so, we neglect the historian’s share of responsibility for undoing the inequities that still threaten to turn this country, as the authors of the National Advisory Committee on Civil Disorders—the Kerner Commission—warned more than a half-century ago, into “two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.”
To our students, colleagues, alumni, and friends: we invite you to learn with us, act with us.