The Scholar Helping America Grapple with Its Ugly History
Author Keisha N. Blain knows Donald Trump and Dylann Roof didn't come out of nowhere.
Photo of Keisha Blaine by Chioke I’Anson for Virginia Commonwealth University
Shock has emerged as the signature emotional response to the organized confusion of the Trump era. The president is at war with the same agents of federal law enforcement investigating his old campaign. Just months after an alt-right rally in Charlottesville ended in death, emboldened white supremacists are littering college campuses with propaganda. And an immigration system that was already broken has been thrown into even more chaos by a White House bent on vindictive, nativist policies.
All that dysfunction—much of it inspired by racially infused hate—is often greeted with incredulity, as if it were extremely unusual or even unprecedented. Keisha Blain knows better.
The author and historian is an ascendant voice highlighting disturbing episodes in America’s past, many of which were previously whitewashed or ignored entirely. The University of Pittsburgh professor co-developed the Charleston Syllabus in 2015 after white supremacist Dylann Roof murdered nine congregants at an historic African American church in the South Carolina city. More recently, she helped craft the Trump Syllabus 2.0—an upgrade of an earlier effort criticized for failing to include perspectives from scholars of color and other marginalized groups—to document the political climate that gave way to the 45th president. Both began as Twitter hashtags but were later fleshed out into books and classroom curricula tracing the roots of racial violence, white supremacy, and bilious politics. Blain also has a new book of her own out this month, Set the World on Fire: Black Nationalist Women and the Global Struggle for Freedom, a text that spotlights the black women who propelled the black nationalist movement of the 20th century.
Blain’s interest in political issues was nurtured early on during her years growing up in the Caribbean and in Brooklyn. But it wasn’t until college that a last-minute decision to take a history class set her life—and career—on an entirely different trajectory. We reached out to the academic for some context for her work correcting historic blind spots, how to make sense of the open racial antagonism emanating from this White House, and how black women have been shaping America's story all along. Here’s what we talked about.
The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
VICE: Americans have a strange relationship with our history, where we’ve kind of grown accustomed to a version of it that’s embarrassingly inaccurate. Take, for example, the sanitized version of Martin Luther King Jr. that most school kids learn about: Most of us were taught MLK was this docile visionary who gave the ultimate feel-good speech, but never that he was a radical anti-capitalist and anti-war activist who really interrogated the concept of whiteness and white privilege. But we’re also starting to see pushback when dubious accounts of history come out, and more people seem willing to evaluate where they grew up with a critical eye. Is America’s vision of its own past improving?
Keisha N. Blain: I do think it’s improving. A few events that took place over the past several months have forced people to think about history and its portrayal. Several months ago, there was a strange comment made by [chief of staff John Kelly] from the White House about the Civil War occurring because of an inability to compromise. And many historians immediately responded and wrote op-eds expressing outrage.
But something that was clear, based on comments made by various leaders in the White House and elsewhere, was the need to get history out to the wider public. I came to realize the great work we do never reaches the people we actually want to read our work. So I’m encouraged by the direction we’re taking and the interest people have to know more.
Even today, with things like textbooks, we’re still battling over who and what should be included. And there are generations of Americans who went to school and learned history through a very particular lens—often a very racist lens. In many ways, we’re lagging behind as a nation.
We’ve lived with this skewed understanding of our history for so long already. What’s the price of letting this misinformation persist another generation longer?
I started thinking about this a few years ago, related to Charleston. I remember hearing leaders in our country and people on the news saying things like, “This is the first time we’ve seen this kind of violence taking place in a black church!” and talking about how it was strange and against our values.
When these tragedies occur, particularly when race is at the center, these are comforting things to say. It’s fine to acknowledge the growth we’ve made, but it’s dangerous to suggest it’s always been wonderful and say that only now are we seeing these instances. Let’s stop with the false narrative that things have always been great.
A lot of people were uncomfortable to hear this, but if you look at US history, Dylann Roof fits with a pattern. Black churches have always been targeted, for centuries. White supremacy has been rooted in this country for centuries. And that makes people uncomfortable. That’s fine. We can talk about what’s great in the US, but we also need to talk about the parts that make us uncomfortable. If we don’t, how do we confront it and make the changes we want to see?
That seems to be a common narrative around Donald Trump’s presidency: the shocking abnormality of it all and how it’s something we’ve never seen the likes of before. With Trump, is any of it really so strange and so new?
That’s what I had in mind with the Trump syllabus: As shocking at his election seemed to many people, it represented a point on a larger continuum of our history. In so many ways, we can see the threads throughout US history that almost signal to us as historians that this was already in the making. We identified 20th-century figures who were very similar in their ideas about racism or immigration. There’s a sort of narrative that people often try to sell about United States, and then there’s reality. And they don’t often align.
Even the “MAGA” slogan is a rerun of sorts, right?
People are surprised that the slogan in and of itself isn’t new—it was from Ronald Reagan’s 1980 campaign.
So as often as we might be surprised by current events, there’s a bit of a Groundhog Day element to American history.
There’s a joke that historians know the past and the present but are terrible at predicting the future. But what I find terribly valuable about history is to see the patterns and how they play out or take new shape and meanings. Or generations later people pick up the mantle.
I often ask my students: When did the civil rights movement end? And some say the 60s or the 70s. And I ask them to consider Black Lives Matter and how the iteration of that could be an example of the civil rights movement now. And then they looked at how similar strategies have been used in the 60s compared to now, with BLM. The demands are very much in line with the demands of our parents and grandparents before. I like asking those questions because it forces us to grapple with the notion of progress.
Have you heard of someone having a significant transformation after reckoning with their flawed understanding of American history?
One of the most rewarding aspects of the Charleston Syllabus was receiving letters from people who shared their personal journey with me. There was one particular woman who wrote to me and said, “Now that I’ve read the syllabus, I’ve learned so much. Can you recommend a graduate program in African American history I could enroll in?” She shared with me her story that she had held certain views most of her life and admitted that her understanding of history was a very distorted one.
People emailed and said they were in their 50s and were embarrassed to admit they had never heard of some of these black women leaders. There were so many personal stories about how this information transformed them. You do these things and just hope for the best. And unsurprisingly, learning the history changes people’s thinking about the present.
As often as people of color get erased from history, black women seem to get shorted the most. With both the civil rights movement and Black Lives Matter, these causes were often led by black women but are most commonly associated with a single male figure, right?
So many historians are still guilty of telling history through the eyes of men. People will sit down and write an entire book about a movement all about men, and it gets reviewed, and it gets published. And only after someone asks, "What about the women?” does the author have to respond.
When you look below the surface, it’s often women who organized and led them. Things like the Montgomery bus boycotts; those helped lead MLK to the national stage. But the boycotts were led by women like Jo Ann Robinson of the Women’s Political Council. And members of the community then turned to a man, to MLK, and asked him to lead the strategy.
What did you find when you were telling the story of women in the Black Nationalist movement? That’s another one that’s historically been seen as very male-dominated.
In 1927, [black nationalist leader] Marcus Garvey is deported back to Jamaica. And history books say the movement kind of died out until it was sort of revived by Malcolm X. And I think, How did this vibrant movement with millions of followers die out? And then I find that after Garvey was deported, a woman established a movement and it grows into the 1950s and 1960s.
I remember going through FBI files on the topic and saw a correspondence that said, “I can’t believe we missed this.” The FBI was talking about women’s organizing efforts in the South. They were looking for the black men, and they were looking for the troublemakers, and they weren’t imagining that women were the one’s keeping the movement going even after all the men were arrested.
Even when I started researching, people told me I wasn’t going to find anything on the subject. “There’s no material on it.” I would go to archives and ask if they had info on women in the black nationalist movement. And they’d say, “oh, maybe just one thing.” And then I’d find troves of letters and materials and then tell them what I was finding.
Your work contests a lot of deeply entrenched ideas in American culture. Can you talk about that task and its pitfalls, both personal and professional?
As I developed as a scholar and teacher over the years, I felt rather confined by what appeared to be the standard expectations in my field. I certainly wanted to write history books and journal articles, but I wanted much more—I wanted to utilize my skills in a way that help improve the world in which we live. I wanted my work to have an impact far beyond the four walls of academia. This desire—and the urgent need for more public scholarship on race and history at this moment—motivated me to become involved in several public projects.
Doing this very public work can be challenging. I have had to come to terms with the reality that many people will not embrace the kind of work I am doing—even other professional historians. However, it has been personally rewarding. It keeps me going to know that my work is helping to shape national conversations on race and even more, that my work is helping to propel people to take tangible steps in their communities to help build a more just and equal society.
Learn more about Keisha Blaine's new book, out this month, here.
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This story is a part of VICE's ongoing effort to highlight the contributions of black women around the globe who are making a difference. To read more stories about strong black women making history today, go here.