Historians: History is more than an academic exercise

ST. LOUIS, Mo – Historians from across the country recently converged on the Show-Me State for the Organization of American Historians (OAH) 2015 annual meeting held here April 16-19.

Andrew Zimmerman, a professor at George Washington University, told the People’s World, “Understanding history isn’t just an academic exercise. History shapes and molds our perceptions of our past, present and future. It informs and builds a narrative. It provides lessons applicable to today’s reality.”

Zimmerman, who is also the author of Alabama in Africa: Booker T. Washington, the German Empire, and the Globalization of the New South, is currently editing a new volume of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels’ writings on the U.S. Civil War for International Publishers.

At the OAH Conference, Zimmerman spoke on a panel titled “Marx and Marxism in America: Taboo or Totem?”

He informed participants that during the period just prior to and during the Civil War, Marx and Engels penned about 500 articles for the U.S. press and had a lively, respectful and welcomed correspondence with President Abraham Lincoln.

According to Zimmerman, Marx and Engels saw the Civil War as “a workers’ revolt,” “a social revolution.” They also saw the arming of African Americans as “a trump card,” ensuring the North’s victory.

Additionally, Zimmerman analyzed the shifting narrative of the meaning of the Civil War to leftists and communists during the ‘Popular Front’ period. He said, during the late 1930’s the Civil War narrative shifted “as a political function” of anti-fascism. Instead of being a “workers’ revolt,” as Marx and Engels’ characterized it, the Civil War became a continuation of, a second act in the “bourgeois revolution” initiated in 1776.

At another panel, titled “The Red Taboo in American History,” Julia Mickenberg emphasized “the networks of hope” forged among women, African Americans and trade unionists “by the fact of Soviet Russia’s existence.”

Mickenberg, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin and the author of Learning from the Left: Children’s Literature, The Cold War, and Radical Politics in the United States, added, that due to the “Red Taboo” the Soviet Union “looms large, yet is largely unacknowledged” as a one-time, world-wide beacon of hope. Complicating histories of radical interest in and attraction to the Soviet Union is the reality of Soviet political repression and the imprisonment and murder of millions of its own citizens, including thousands of communists, which makes it difficult to clearly examine these “networks of hope,” Mickenberg added.

Glenda Gilmore, a professor at Yale and the author of Defying Dixie: The Radical Roots of Civil Rights, 1919-1950, said that the Communist Party provided “an alternative, aspirational idea, and threat to the racial class order” in the South. Though “The lived Cold War colored every aspect of Southern history” and made clear the “stark limitations of Southern liberalism,” it also proved “the power of ideas that moved people [often communists and their supporters] to take risks.”

She added, understanding this obscured and neglected history “enriches our conception of hope.”

This author asked Gilmore about the lack of Communist Party historiography from the 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s. Gilmore highlighted security concerns and the lack of archival material related to this era, as obstacles.

Undoubtedly, the history of the post-McCarthy, post-Red Scare era – in which many communist activists understandably did not keep records or other archival material due to the lived experience of political repression – and Communist Party activism needs to be told.

Another panel, titled “Black Women and the Struggle for Economic Justice: Rethinking Labor and Working Class History,” highlighted the radical manifestations of Black working class feminism.

Jenny Carson, a professor at Ryerson University and author of the forth-coming book It was up to All of us to Fight’: Women, Work, and Resistance in the Laundry Industry, talked about the role of radical women, often communist-led, in organizing the laundry industry in New York City in the 1930’s.

She said, “in the 1930’s more Black women worked in laundry than in any other industry.” Carson not only described the poor working and difficult organizing conditions, she also highlighted the interracial, women-led efforts to maintain democratic control of the union once it merged with the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, which was dominated by white males and known for “racism, sexism and union corruption.”

Keona Ervin, an assistant professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia and the author of the forth-coming book The Labor of Dignity: Black Women, Urban Politics, and the Struggle for Economic Justice in the Gateway City, 1931-1969, talked about African American women organizers in the International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union in St. Louis.

In her presentation, titled We Rebel: Black Women, Worker Theater, and Wartime Experiments in Interracial Unionism, Ervin said, “black women’s labor activism was a unique crucible for the emergence of critical progressive unionism.” Adding that, “women made America’s cultural landscape.” Specifically, Ervin highlighted the role of African American women union members who “pushed” the ILGWU workers’ theatre program “towards more progressive ends,” thereby “exposing the racialized and gendered fault lines of progressive unionism’s cultural politics.”

The OAH conference featured a wealth of opportunities for academic and general interest participants to engage with panelists and exhibitors, talk with authors and explore research topics.

“Taboos” was the theme of the conference, and many of the panels explored controversial topics – like “Ethnic Cleansing or Genocide? Native People and the United States,” “Memorializing Massacres in the American West,” “Sex, Religion, and Outlaw Teachers: Taboo Topics in the History of American Education,” and “Authentic Blackness? Mapping Black-African Authenticity during the 1920s and 1930s,” among many, many others – from a range of different, often neglected perspectives.

Photo: OAH Facebook.



Tony Pecinovsky
Tony Pecinovsky

Tony Pecinovsky is the author of "Let Them Tremble: Biographical Interventions Marking 100 Years of the Communist Party, USA" and author/editor of "Faith In The Masses: Essays Celebrating 100 Years of the Communist Party, USA." His forthcoming book is titled "The Cancer of Colonialism: W. Alphaeus Hunton, Black Liberation, and the Daily Worker, 1944-1946." Pecinovsky has appeared on C-SPAN’s "Book TV" and speaks regularly on college and university campuses across the country.