To History is not to recall & regurgitate a series of dates, names, & places in chronological order. That’s stamp collecting. To History is to engage in a profoundly subversive activity. To History is to inquire of the past. To rediscover past events, to situate them in context, to give them new meaning.
History engages the politics of identity. The stories we tell, the ideas we cling to, come from the past. The myths we build around national, social, cultural identities become entrenched as tools for assigning value, attributing power, maintaining order. Historians transform the past by reinterpreting it. Historians can breathe new meaning into past events, past consequences. They question ingrained narratives. They challenge unquestioned identity politics. And that is a borderline revolutionary act in itself.
What we do in the present. How we understand our place. How we respond to our past triumphs & transgressions. Maybe it changes the future. But it certainly transforms the past. Walter Benjamin once observed that women & men revolt not because of any promise of a happier future for their grandchildren, but because of memories of oppressed ancestors. That is the power of History told & understood well.
Inasmuch as we live in a forward-looking world, one bent on racing toward some abstract future, historians have never been more important, making sure we don’t lose sight of who we are, where we come from, & how we can change.