The Past Ahead of Us
“History,” wrote James Baldwin, “does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do.” Citing this as a starting point, historian and Nation editorial board member Eric Foner goes on to note, “There is nothing unusual or sinister in the fact that each generation rewrites history to suit its own needs, or about disagreements within the profession and among the public at large about how history should best be taught and studied.” He assembles a set of essays primarily taken from events in his life over the past decade–it’s a personal book in this regard–including accounts of his experience in two societies grappling with deep historical change, Russia and South Africa. All investigate the relationship between the historian and his or her world. Since much of Foner’s own work has centered around Reconstruction, many of the essays broach that subject and the effects on race relations to this day (he takes on Civil War documentarian Ken Burns and the cult of nostalgia in this context).
Overall, much of Who Owns History? stands as an argument for public engagement, and touches on issues such as globalization, social reconciliation and national identity. “‘American’ is what philosophers call an ‘essentially contested concept,'” Foner observes, and he cautions in his chapter on “American Freedom in a Global Age” that, in the shadow of the Reagan revolution, “the dominant constellation of definitions seems to consist of a series of negations–of government, of social responsibility, of a common public culture,” amid the tightening web of economic and cultural ties termed “globalization.” Foner says that “the relationship between globalization and freedom may be the most pressing political and social problem of the twenty-first century.”