Handsy Miniature: Am I a Historian, and of What am I a Historian?

By Doctor Comrade

I’ve always been uncomfortable calling myself a “historian” for a few reasons. It connotes being a professional, of which I am not. I do not make my living doing history; I make it teaching and archiving. Yet I participate in the historian’s craft, which is to say I write about history, I study history, and I participate in the discipline of academic History in an institutional sense. But the label has always felt rather cumbersome to someone like me, who is not only committed to leaving academia but also to democratizing the systems of knowledge that History privileges.

Any label requires performativity. For instance, I wouldn’t call myself an opera singer because I do not sing opera; I wouldn’t call myself a firemen because I don’t pose for risqué calendars. I may be a historian, educated in History more than most people, amateurish without a doubt, but I do spend a majority of my time either learning history or creating it. In this sense, I may be considered a historian because it is a role that I perform through the interrogation, amalgamation, and referentialization of the past in a very particular discipline with similarly particular goals. But even in these terms, I am uncomfortable with that label.

Each semester, when we go around the room on the first day of our seminars and introduce ourselves, I always answer that I am a historian of gender, race, and journalism in twentieth-century America. But to me this is problematic because my theoretical, methodological, ideological, and unconscious dispositions pull me towards fields that are much more complicated than categorizing them as “gender, race, and journalism.”

I study gender. Not women, or men really (though all history until recently has been the history of men), but constructions of womanhood and manhood and the constellation of other values that seem to orbit these two constructed poles. Many theorists and historians have hotly contested the meanings of gender, sex, women, and men, and I partake in this discourse through an examination of the constructions of femininity and masculinity in American culture. Those who practice women’s history, women’s studies, masculinity studies, or a number of other fields can also be said to perform this function, yet I choose history because of the methods I employ to deconstruct the past.

I study race. Not any particular "race," though my work has tended to focus on the black-white binary that I have observed in texts about race, class, gender, and violence in the American media. Though I myself appear to be white, my interpretation of history cannot avoid the topics of race because it would be a tremendous oversight to write about the history of journalism without observing its constructions of race (and class, gender, etc.). History has become the study of intersections of meaning and representation; historians who continue to exclude women, people of color, the working class, and queer voices have been pushed closer to the margins of the field as the holy triumvirate of Race, Class, and Gender has emerged as the predominant modes of study. I would also consider it to be an unforgivable oversight if any historian attempted to write about race without also addressing the intersectional power structures of class and gender as well.

I study the twentieth century, but that seems like a false periodization of my fields. Because you can't simply write about the twentieth century without also considering the nineteenth and eighteenth centuries. And also, I consider my work to have ramifications in the present, so am I also a historian of the twenty-first century? My advisors have resisted allowing me to write history of the twenty-first century because it’s not old enough yet. But I believe I am, and if not for some academic advising, I would be studying the post-9/11 media landscape. I choose to study the history of journalism because, as a discipline, journalism is a fascinating view of contemporary culture and ideology. The sources are easy to find and easy to read, even “against the grain,” as has become the fashion in the social sciences.

I've often heard some women say, "I'm not a feminist, but..." and then they describe a political goal that feminists have sought to attain like equal pay, equal political representation, or reproductive rights. Would I also say "I'm not a historian, but..." and then follow that sentence with examples of historical arguments or literature I've read? Does the term become meaningless when applied to such a broad framework? And would I deprive myself of credibility if I refuse to call myself a historian? For now, I’m content to say that I’m a grad student who studies history, without the pretensions of professionalism or institutionalization.