Mary Grabar, Resident Fellow, The Alexander Hamilton Institute for the Study of Western Civilization (AHI), has a bone to pick with James Sweet, president of the American Historical Association. Sweet initially criticized “presentism” or “useable past” history in the study of African history. So far so good. But when “woke” elites leveled a barrage of attacks against him, Sweet’s capitulations to his detractors had all the hallmarks of a “Moscow show trial.”
In “American Historical Association Falls Prey To ‘Presentism’ Struggle Session” for The Federalist, Dr. Grabar registers her dismay at this turn of events. Sweet, a Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, specializes in African history. His column for the American Historical Association website criticizes, if ever so faintly, useable past history, which she defines as reading “the past through the prism of contemporary social justice issues—race, gender, sexuality, nationalism, capitalism.” Credible historians contextualize their field of a study according to time, place, and circumstance. Actors in history cannot be expected to operate in an intellectual or moral horizon that they could not possibly have had.
Implicitly, Sweet asked, “Do the many ethnicities throughout West Africa bear any responsibility for enslavement.” Yes, of course they did. Some ethnicities responded to market incentives in trading with Western Europeans from West African. But some West Africans ethnicities enslaved other West African ethnicities— and on a massive scale— who had nothing to do with Western Europeans.
Sweet reported on his travels in Ghana at Elmina Castle, one of many sites where the Atlantic slave trade was formerly carried on. “He was absolutely correct,” says Grabar, “to present concern that the tour guide at Elmina . . . wrongly stated that the Ghanaians ‘unknowingly sent their ‘servants’ into chattel slavery. . .. [V]illages had been raided for slaves to be sold, a practice that had been going on for centuries before the arrival of the Europeans.” A forthcoming film, which Sweet had critiqued before his rude awakening, had “Dahomey’s female warriors and King Ghezo” battling the slave traders.” Nothing can be further from the truth. “To the contrary, they promoted it” (emphasis added).
Few of Sweet’s critics are specialists in African history. Despite his soft-pedaling the work of Nikole Hannah-Jones, the architect of The 1619 Project (a work that Sweet, in truth, did not regard as “a work of history” in the first place) his “[c]olleagues and members” of the association would have none it. In issuing apologies, as Grabar notes, “[t]he following phrases all appear: “I take full responsibility;’ ‘I am deeply sorry;’ ‘I sincerely regret;’ ‘it wasn’t my intention;’ and the especially scraping, ‘I hope to redeem myself.’” So telling is the attack on Sweet, the American Historical Public blocked the comments.