Bringing Ourselves Along with Us: The Realities of Historical Writing

Portrait of a negress

I am a minoritized scholar – something that is usually clear by looking at me – working with disenfranchised communities: Black women in nineteenth century France. But I state it clearly when I speak to classes or do more formalized lectures. People who look like me are not regularly teaching in European history courses. In fact, my book, Vénus Noire: Black Women & Colonial Fantasies in Nineteenth-Century France, opens with an emotional encounter I had with the body cast of one of the women I write about: Sarah Baartmann. I had not intended to include the story in my manuscript. But it felt important to me for several reasons. First, I knew that as a Black woman writing on Black women, some readers might think I could not be objective. Even though the same claim is rarely used against white men. If you have ever had a new colleague hear about your work for the first time looking at you, shaking their head, and knowingly exclaiming, “of course,” you know exactly what I am talking about (as if I have suddenly become legible to you in some new way). I have not, but that is a conversation for another blog. Suffice to say that getting out ahead of those assumptions was important to me, so the reader could focus on the real subjects of my historical inquiry.

Second, it was a reminder to my readers (and myself) that I am a trained historian and was up to the challenge of completing the project. Imposter Syndrome? Perhaps. But mainly it is because I was asserting my right to be taken seriously, just like any other competent historian. And readers need to be reminded of that. Third, because historians are people. No one is objective all the time, even if there is an assumption that whiteness makes it so. I write about terrible trauma, humiliation, and degradation that the subjects of my book were forced to endure every day. I have no desire to write or to read history that assumes that my rage, my sorrow, and my other emotions have no place in the discipline, or in the writing. They do. Self-indulgence serves no one. But how can we write about, in my case, women who lived through the unimaginable, and what primary documents tell us were horrific circumstances, and not feel the same sense of powerlessness and outrage? Should this even be our goal? No one is objective about everything: including sometimes about our own work. That is what peer review is for. And while peer review is imperfect – sometimes our peers are culturally insensitive and cluelessly subjective – it is a step that can sometimes save us from ourselves. Or make us even more certain that our voice matters. More important to me are the networks of scholars who do work on “unruly subjects” and who embrace new and unconventional ways of approaching them: ones who aren’t completely dismissive of the “I.”

We hope that our colleagues will extend the same grace we do when reading new work, and encourage us, when necessary, to get over ourselves and get on with it. I trust the process in all its facets. I also trust myself.

When I was young, history was always something that happened to me. My teachers spoke of the great contributors to history: they were always male, and none of them were people of African descent. According to the books I read in elementary and secondary schools, Black people never did anything, contributed anything, or counted for anything. Slavery was a mere and uncomfortable footnote, explored only from a white perspective. We were conspicuous by our absence. I was a double blight on history’s canvas, excluded by my race and my gender. Becoming a historian was the furthest thing from my mind. When I attended college (for the first time) at age 18, I mistakenly listened to people who told me that only certain disciplines were appropriate for me. My college career ended at age 19, with a complete loss of confidence. It would take more than a decade for me to re-gain the courage to return to college and finish my undergraduate degree, and then my doctorate. I was ashamed of my trajectory for a long time. Now, when I am teaching and a student says that they cannot recover from a setback, I can point to my own failures and tell them they can. And if they ask for an example, I can point to myself. I write about Black women because they were important historical actors in nineteenth century France, and I believed (and still do) that they can tell us something new about the space, the place, and the other people who inhabited it along with them. I am a Black woman writing about Black women in European history. I bring myself with me wherever I go.

What is at stake for us—as women in the discipline of history—to determine to do the same? What kinds of history can we tell if we bring all of ourselves along with us in our work that we reveal to the public, all shiny and new? What happens if we do not hide ourselves or the mechanics of what we do?

The endurance of historical amnesia in French history perpetuates not only the erasure of Blacks from disciplines such as European history but reinforces history in general as homogeneous and exclusively white. Those of us who wish to be called historians must remain diligent to comprehend our own frailties and prejudices. French history, as a discipline, does not need to be revised simply to placate the naysayers who claim exclusion. French history, to approach accuracy, requires (re)vision to acknowledge the contributions of Black women within a discourse that has previously erased them.

Dr Robin Mitchell is Associate Professor in the Department of History at California State University, Channel Islands. In her first monograph, Vénus Noire: Black Women & Colonial Fantasies in Nineteenth-Century France, she argues that Black women – their voices and their bodies – helped drive discourses about Frenchness and helped white French men and women form new kinds of national identity in France after the loss of the Haitian Revolution. Vénus Noire was published with University of Georgia Press in January of 2020. It was named by the African American Intellectual History Society as one of “The Best Black History Books of 2020.”