Book review

Who Owns History: Rethinking the Past in a Changing World, by Eric Foner, Hill and Wang, 2003, 233 pp., Paperback, $13.00

Eric Foner, a Columbia University professor probably best known for his groundbreaking history of post-Civil War Reconstruction, provides nine speeches, delivered over a span of 20 years, in his most recent book “Who Owns History.”

The book focuses on many different aspects of the historical profession. In the chapter “My Life as a Historian,” Foner tells us about growing up among a family of historians, whose careers were ruined by the anti-communist hysteria of the times, and how family views helped to shape his political and historical perspectives. Foner’s father, Jack D. Foner, and uncle, Philip S. Foner, along with sixty other faculty members of City College of New York were “dismissed” from their teaching positions “after informers named them as members of the Communist Party.”

To highlight how the historical profession has changed over the past 50 years, Foner reminds us that the Communist historian “Herbert Aptheker … along with black scholars like W.E.B. Du Bois, had begun the process of challenging the prevailing stereotypes about black history,” long before his work on African American history become recognized and respected.

In 1990 Foner taught at Moscow University for four months. The chapter “The Russians Write a New History,” tells us some of Foner’s impressions of the new Russian society. On May 9 he took his daughter to Gorky Park to celebrate one of the U.S.S.R.’s most popular holidays – the anniversary of Germany’s surrender in World War II. “To my surprise,” he wrote, “no young people took part in the celebration. When I asked a student about this, he remarked, ‘My generation has no interest in May 9.” Then Foner added, “The rethinking of history, I realized, has opened a deep fissure between the generations.”

Foner also spoke with a life-long Soviet Communist Party member who said, “I feel my life has been wasted.” Foner comments, “They deeply resent having their ideals, struggles, and accomplishments forgotten or, worse still dismissed.”

Foner is at his best, though, when he writes about African Americans, their struggles, aspirations and achievements. In 1989 Foner was asked to deliver the Herbert Gutman Memorial Lecture at the City University of New York. He spoke on the “long, complex constitutional history of African Americans.”

In that chapter, “Blacks and the U.S. Constitution,” Foner shows how historical perspectives shape and influence modern political dialog and are sometimes used to justify reactionary legislation. According to Foner, conservative Supreme Court judges who argue “original intent,” a “refreshingly naive, almost quaint … idea that any text, including the Constitution, possesses a single, easily ascertainable, objective meaning,” are using it as a “justification for the undoing” of affirmative action and other democratic gains made through years of struggle.

Foner continues, “differing understandings of … history continue to play a central part in the debate over civil rights.” Throughout Foner’s study a concern for historical objectivity, and modern political understanding of how history shapes our perspectives is prevalent.

In the Preface to “Who Owns History,” Foner writes, “History always has been and always will be rewritten, in response to new questions, new information, new methodologies, and new political, social, and cultural imperatives.” Then he asks, “Who owns history? Everyone and no one – which is why the study of the past is a constantly evolving, never-ending journey of discovery.”

– Tony Pecinovsky (