Home > Historiography > Historians Against Slavery: What’s in a Name?

What do you think of when you think of our organization’s name: Historians Against Slavery?

If you are not an historian, one natural reaction might be to wonder if there is such a thing as historians for slavery. Aren’t all historians today against slavery?

The answer to that question is almost certainly “yes” if we are talking about slavery as it existed prior to 1865. One would be hard pressed to find historians today who are not against New World chattel slavery and the transatlantic slave trade. But it is worth remembering that even this consensus is a fairly recent development if we take a long view of the historiography on slavery. We are not yet a century removed from the defenses of slavery in the antebellum South written by academic historians like Ulrich Bonnell Phillips. And we are barely sixty years removed from the transformative wave of scholarship begun by historians like John Hope Franklin and Kenneth Stampp who, unlike Phillips, published scholarship on slavery that was resolutely against slavery.

But the mission of Historians Against Slavery is not—or not primarily, at least—to once again take up the fight against Ulrich Phillips and his ilk. Our goal is instead to direct attention to the persistence of forms of slavery even in the present, and to provide historical context and information to modern-day antislavery activism.

Here, however, it is possible to imagine a different reaction to our name and mission, particularly from historians who value standards of objectivity. For some scholars, the idea of being strongly against something while attempting to study it may be off-putting or perhaps even antithetical to our professional norms. Should historians be explicitly against things in their roles as professional historians, or will that cloud their judgment of the present and the past? Even those who would most willingly concede that “objectivity is not neutrality,” to borrow the words of Thomas Haskell, warn that some critical detachment or distance from one’s subject is necessary to understand it well. Can historians, then, truly be engaged in scholarship and activism at the same time, or does the one always threaten to distort the other?

This is an enduring question for the historical profession, of course, and it’s unlikely to ever disappear entirely. But it seems to me that the history of slavery from Franklin and Stampp forward offers a compelling counterexample to the idea that being against something inhibits historical understanding. On the contrary, it was precisely because Franklin, Stampp, and the countless talented historians who came after them didn’t buy into defenses of slavery that they were able to read old sources against the grain and discover new things in them. Their engagement clarified sources and forced alternative—and ultimately more compelling—readings of everything from Southern autobiographies to runaway slave advertisements. Because they were against slavery, they learned to read the “hidden transcripts,” as James C. Scott called them, that enabled historians to see what was really going on around and beyond slave plantations.

Of course, abolitionists themselves had learned to make such sensitive alternative readings of slavery long before the twentieth century. Theodore Dwight Weld’s American Slavery As It Is was essentially a compendium of the “hidden transcripts” found in runaway slave ads and other fragmentary evidence—evidence that Weld and other abolitionists read more accurately precisely because they were skeptical of white Southerners’ claims. Historians of the Civil Rights Era like Stampp were “neo-abolitionist” in a double sense, therefore: they not only, like abolitionists, opposed slavery, but they also used that opposition to understand slavery better.

The value of “neo-abolitionist” history, in that double sense, has more recent examples, as well. Gaiutra Bahadur, author of Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture, has recently written about how she found evidence of the “trauma” of indentured servitude in hidden transcripts like the photographs of illiterate, subaltern women—photographs that revealed their complex secrets not because of Bahadur’s scholarly detachment from the “trauma” she studied but precisely because of her critical posture towards the oppressive systems that made it difficult for the “subaltern body” to “speak.”

Likewise, in the latest issue of Perspectives, the magazine of the American Historical Association, human rights historian Keith David Watenpaugh explains how his archival encounter with children who were kidnapped and enslaved during the Armenian genocide reminded him of the power of outrage and horror to unleash one of the historian’s most useful tools: “empathetic imagination.” Distance and detachment, Watenpaugh suggests, can sometimes obscure more of the truth of the past than closeness and empathy would.

That lesson, which we have learned partly from the histories of slavery past, is one of the reasons why historians against slavery can add a crucial dimension to conversations about slavery in the present. In a contemporary field that is often crowded with powerful sponsors of big data collection or with one-dimensional images of slavery and antislavery in the past, historians who aren’t shy about being against slavery are uniquely equipped to read reports about slavery today against the grain—not despite, but because of, our opposition to slavery in all of its forms. Using the empathetic imagination and awareness of “hidden transcripts” that we have learned from writing the history of slavery, we can help to make slavery history.

And perhaps, in the process, we’ll again find that the opposite is true: by helping to make slavery history, we will better understand the history of slavery, too.

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