History is Changing; We’re Changing History!

View south from Alameda shore early November…

Firstly, I’m feeling fine (thanks for asking!). I just started a round of prophylactic immunotherapy infusions to be sure we have killed off all the microscopic cancer cells that may be floating around in me… but the cancer-free diagnosis I got after my October 14 surgery has held up so far, and I’m happy to say my voice is back (28 days later!). I have resumed all my usual activities, including hiking and biking around San Francisco, playing pétanque, and schlepping home 50-70 lbs of groceries every week on my bike. Basically I feel just as normal as I did before surgery, and before diagnosis, except for a very numb half of my left face (from mid-ear to the bottom of my neck) which may last a year or more…

Anyway, my personal history is unfolding in surprising ways this year. All of us are having a weird Covid-warped year, but some are having harder or easier ones than others. All in all, I can’t complain since I have really not been suffering since neither my cancerous tumors nor their treatment have been that bad, and life during Covid is not so different for me than what it was before Covid. Between the loving care I get from Adriana, and the sweet joy of seeing my father, my daughter and my grandkids all the time, I have it easy. Plus, we eat incredibly well!

I read a lot. I’ve probably plowed through at least 30 books this year, mostly nonfiction but some great novels too. In fact, I finally read the original Frankenstein after getting inspired by reading Dave McNally’s Monsters of the Market (Haymarket Books: 2012). I also recently read Kim Stanley Robinson’s latest, Ministry for the Future—I always enjoy his work more than most, and I liked this novel too, but it was less of a novel than a strong demonstration of thinking creatively about our fraught future. It has plot and characters and a variety of compelling events, but more than anything it shows one man’s ideas, at one point in time, of how we actually could grapple with climate chaos on a global basis, even while realistically understanding how much inertia blocks us, not to mention so many people with the worst of intentions.

Outdoor dining in Covid times, North Beach, November 2020.

Thanks to readings this year, I also enjoy a widening perspective on history. Not only am I constantly confronted with how little I actually know (while at the same time, my endless filling in of blanks does create thickening webs of understanding), but a lot of what I’m reading is actually breaking new ground historically. Whether its about how other people are doing history, or histories covering lost and forgotten chapters, or stories of populations that have been left out of the historic record until now, we are living through a remarkable explosion of paradigm-shifting historical work.

A good friend, Peter Linebaugh, has certainly been one of the historians who shaped this epoch of rethinking basic assumptions. He was a student of famous British historian of the working-class, E.P. Thompson, and steeped in a “history from below” perspective, he has opened that up to reveal lost histories of the Commons, of commoners and commoning. Our pals at PM Press published his collected essays Stop, Thief! The Commons, Enclosures, and Resistance back in 2014, but as is the case with anthologies, I find myself going back to find things rather than reading it from front to back. I revisited Linebaugh’s essay “Ned Ludd & Queen Mab: Machine-Breaking, Romanticism, and the Several Commons of 1811-1822,” realizing as I did that it was a precursor to his more recent book on Ned Despard, the Anthropocene, and Global Warming Red Round Globe Hot Burning. Peter’s style is unique. He always manages to knit together seemingly disparate and far-removed items that individually seem small and isolated, but once he does his magic, they make a coherent analytical tapestry:

Rocketry was the advanced military technology of the day, originating in India at the battle of Seringapatam in 1799 and carefully studied by Robert Emmet in the insurrection of 1803. During this total war hundreds of thousands of soldiers put boots on the ground, boots made of hides from cattle fed in the pastures of Ireland or the pampas of Argentina. Pick any thread of this tapestry, pull it, and yes, the historian unravels the cruelties and crimes of the era, but look more carefully and there is another story which sticks to the hand. It is the story of preservation, resistance, kindness to strangers, a seat at the table. This was the commons, and so it was with the Luddites. (p. 81-82)

Part of my rooting around in history has led me to the surprising perception that our world in 2020 is still heavily shaped by events that took place decades and centuries ago. The new histories that I’ve found so exhilarating embody these connections, revealing as they do new ways of understanding received stories that have ossified into condescending clichés if we remember anything at all. In Tacky’s Revolt: The Story of an Atlantic Slave War (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press: 2020), Vincent Brown digs deep into the uprisings that rocked Jamaica in the late 18th century when it was the heart of British imperial wealth, analogous to the wealth France was deriving from Haiti before its successful and all-important revolution within a generation of Jamaica’s revolts. Brown emphasizes that the military conflicts that emerged on the island of Jamaica in the 1760s were not only a part of a global war being fought by Britain against France and a variety of indigenous nations in the Americas and Africa, but also reflected internal African conflicts that began in the west African territories that became the center of the slave trade. The individuals who became enslaved were often men with considerably military skills but had been defeated in battle. The image that late-eighteenth century abolitionists developed to rally anti-slavery sentiment, “of a kneeling supplicant begging to be recognized as a man and a brother,” invoked a false meek innocence. “That icon of abjection has shaped the prevailing understanding of bondage and race to this day. But the caricature bore no resemblance to the black fighters who stood toe-to-toe with whites in encounters all across the war-torn world of Atlantic slavery, from West Africa to the Americas.” (p. 18)

Jamaican slave revolt, 1761.

Tacky’s Revolt specifically refers to an uprising in one part of Jamaica that took place prior to a series of even more dramatic revolts that unfolded over the following years. Brown’s fantastic book unpacks the oversimplified reduction of a series of complicated insurrectionary uprisings to one event led by one person. From the British imperial angle, it’s worth noting that their prime Caribbean colony was hanging in the balance just as their North American colonies were uniting in a Revolutionary War, adding military and political pressure to both war zones.

Certainly the confederacy of Coromantees, Eboes, and creoles that plotted the 1776 uprising exposed as fantasy the belief that only enslaved Africans posed a threat to slavery—and there would be many more creole revolts in the future. Yet contemporary chroniclers and subsequent historians have generally overlooked the way that Jamaica’s landscape channeled slave revolt across generations. The emphasis on the changing nature of rebel participants obscures an important continuity—the reproduction of local political memory that shaped the geography of black militancy over time. (p. 238)

This theme of local political memory and its role in shaping historic agency is fundamental. The role of memory and invisible channels of communication makes up the heart of The Common Wind: Afro-American Currents in the Age of the Haitian Revolution (Verso: 2020) by Julius S. Scott. In it he navigates the very sketchy documentary record to bring to light the numerous ways that information and tactics moved from island to island, and throughout the African diaspora in the Americas to spread news, to shape revolts, and to maintain paths of exodus. Sailors and dockworkers were key transmitters in this extensive oral culture, and it was among those same sailors that some of the greatest revolts of the late 18th and early 19th centuries took place. Linebaugh sets the stage:

Pages: 1 2

1 comment to History is Changing; We’re Changing History!

Leave a Reply

You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>