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What is history?

cover of the pamphlet “Reclaiming the Organic Intellectual”

cover of the pamphlet “Reclaiming the Organic Intellectual”

By Grace Lee Boggs
Special to the Michigan Citizen  

The largely negative or at best lukewarm responses to “Many Rivers to Cross,” the heavily promoted PBS series produced under the aegis of Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, provide us with the  opportunity to revisit “What is History?” by the English historian E.H. Carr.

First published by the Cambridge University Press in 1961, a PDF of this famous and controversial essay can be found on the Web. It is well worth reading and discussing.

Carr’s essay challenges the popular view that history is about facts and forces us to face the reality that history is a story told by somebody.

“It used to be said that facts speak for themselves. This is, of course, untrue. The facts speak only when historians call on them; it is he who decides which facts to give the floor, and in what order or context…”

In other words, the historian is necessarily selective.  The belief in a hard core of historical facts existing objectively and independently of the interpretation of the historian is a preposterous fallacy.

Since the historic struggles of the 1950-60s, a growing number of black intellectuals have become professors of African American studies in universities where they generally produce — not activists or leaders in living struggles — but scholars hoping to become professors.

Thus, at the same time the struggles of the 1950s-60s have been creating new and more challenging contradictions, black intellectuals have become increasingly insulated from  these struggles. They have become inorganic intellectuals in a period and at a time when the whole country and especially black cities and communities need organic intellectuals like Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. Martin and Malcolm’s ideas kept evolving and becoming more revolutionary because they remained actively involved in the struggle.

A few years ago, I keynoted the 40th anniversary of the founding of the Center for African American and African Studies of the University of Michigan.  The main question I asked the gathering to reflect on was:

“In light of the historic struggles and sacrifices that gave birth to black studies and centers of African American studies, why have these studies and these centers  been mainly producing university professors instead of  leaders for the struggles now needed to resolve the urgent and complex issues now facing our whole country and especially black communities?

I titled my speech “Reclaiming the Organic Intellectual.”

Copies of “Reclaiming the Organic Intellectual” are $2.50 from the Boggs Center. Call 313.923.0797 for more information.

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