Introduction to this post series (includes breakdown of post topics and relevant disclaimers)
The most glaring accusation lobbed at historians is the mantra “history was written by the victors.” I wrote a long post about this back in March 2011, but what it boils down to is that primary source documents—especially ones written at times when only the elites were literate and had access to writing supplies—were probably written by the victors, while history—the writing of arguments based on informed analysis of those documents—is written by historians.
Many would read that argument and think to themselves “Okay, but the majority of people conducting those analyses are white men.” However, this is an inaccurate assertion.
The discipline of history was run and populated primarily by white men up until the mid-60’s or 70’s, but these days historians aren’t just a bunch of white guys writing about Caesar, Jefferson, and FDR (although those guys definitely exist). Today, historians are Muslim women writing about the eugenics movement; historians are Jewish women writing about the Reconstruction period; historians are Asian men attempting to reconstruct the pre-colonial history of South Africa; historians are black men writing about the experiences of Indian women under the British Raj.
The statement that all historians are white men and thus that history is an inherently flawed discipline erases the huge body of literature written by professional historians who are not white men, and it erases the existence of historians who are not white men. Which is a tad ridiculous when we consider that the people who tend to loudly assert that history was written by the victors/white men are the same who oppose the erasure of women and minorities from the general social consciousness.
What most people are actually objecting to is the mainstream historical canon; the general body of historical knowledge which most Americans have absorbed through a combination of k-12 education, pop culture, required university courses, the History Channel, magazines, et cetera. It is in that body of knowledge that the lives of people who aren’t white men are erased. And believe me when I say that historians are just as pissed off about it as you are.
Unfortunately, historians have no control over that body of knowledge. We are not the ones who decide what goes into textbooks, we are not the ones who create the k-12 “Social Studies” curricula, and we are not the ones working for the History Channel (although sometimes we are sometimes featured in their programs…and then edited to make it seem as though we agree with everything the host is saying about aliens or Jesus or whatever.)
The problem is that the United States of America (like many other nations) is a nation with a government and a people who are deeply unwilling to look honestly at racial and gender relations in their society. In fact, the American public and certain sectors of the American government often react with anger and scorn when confronted by stories of the lives of the people oppressed and marginalized by our national heroes. Until this changes it is very unlikely that even a fraction of what professional historians understand will make it into the mainstream historical canon.