Oxford AASC: Dispatches

Dispatches From the Editor in Chief


Zigzagging Toward Truth

Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

When reflecting on our history, it can be tempting to frame the past and present as points along an arc of progress pointing ever upward toward greater justice and equality for all. Viewed that way, it becomes ever easier to think of progress itself as inevitable, something that merely requires patience rather than determination and sacrifice. From there, unsuspecting people living in the moment can take progress for granted, hardly even noticing when new forces threaten to reverse it.

A truth too often learned the hard way is that history is far messier than that. Progress comes at great cost and sacrifice. As President Obama reminded us in November 2016, the line from the injustices of the past to the advancements of the present can zigzag in radical directions, while apathy and complacency can undo decades of work.

We find ourselves today in one of those moments—a new nadir in the line of progress—when scholars, activists, and educators need to regroup, refocus, and reenergize if their work is to "bend" what Dr. King famously invoked from the abolitionist Theodore Parker as the "arc of the moral universe." The field of African and African American Studies, along with related disciplines of scholarship, is in a unique position when moments like this arise. Virtually all scholars in this field acknowledge the work that remains, both within society and the field itself. During the Civil Rights Movement, and the long backlash that followed—in which, I would argue, we are still living—scholars of the African American experience have served as a conscience, contrasting the harsh injustices of society with the founding ideals of the nation. In recent years, the experiences of Hurricane Katrina, the Great Recession, mass incarceration, the Charleston massacre, and debates over patriotism, protest, refugees, immigration, and even Confederate monuments, have highlighted the staggering divide in our country. They have also revealed societal structures in serious need of reform, along with greater inclusion of historically marginalized groups into the democratic process.

Despite this important and ongoing work, many of these same scholars have been caught off guard by the recent development, before our very eyes, of a more brazen, seething racism, like some ghost from a buried past. The effects of this new tribalism have confounded even some of the most cynical among us: the disregard for the rule of law, the slippery redefinition of words like truth and facts, the normalization of previously unthinkable positions, the casual dismissal of all dissent as "incivility."

The reaction of despair and exhaustion among many has been understandable. And yet others have risen to the occasion, aware that the slow progress we have made is worth fighting for in bold and subtle ways. There have been moments of inspiration and courage that draw on the long history of struggle, from activists raising awareness about forgotten injustices and new voices joining the democratic arena to professional athletes risking their careers for a cause. Along with the more outspoken heroes, countless others have kept moving forward in their own ways: teachers with a renewed commitment to their students, scholars opening the field to previously ignored perspectives, journalists refocused on the ideals of their profession.

I'm hoping that the leaders in our field can use this opportunity to continue to grow, to question, to speak up, and to listen. Examples of this abound, from brave new insights into the root causes of injustice to the rediscovery of forgotten narratives; from digital databases identifying the victims of the transatlantic slave trade to interdisciplinary school curricula advancing the search for identity and family history through DNA science, genealogy, and history. Given the lack of understanding, and sometimes outright hostility, toward our line of work, the stakes are enormous—but so are the opportunities, if we're willing to reach for them.


Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
Editor in Chief
Oxford African American Studies Center
The Alphonse Fletcher University Professor, Harvard University
October 2018