Eight years ago, after a long morning of high school U.S. history, I found that some of the teaching labs had been converted into live stream theatres. Signs printed in Times New Roman read, “Obama Inauguration Here.” Folks poured in and trickled out of the room as Barack Obama was being sworn into office as the 44th President of the United States. Filled with the smell of Jamaican patties, Popeyes chicken, and lunch boxes as diverse as the world’s cuisines, students and teachers beamed when that skinny Black kid with the funny name took the oath to be sworn into his nation’s highest office.
For my teenage self, the inauguration was the culmination of a rewarding semester, one that I would never have expected to captivate me as early as 8:30 in the morning. As part of my I.B. curriculum, U.S. history was a mandatory subject, even though we lived north of the border in a migrant working-class neighbourhood, far away from the marble and concrete of Washington, D.C. The American Constitution—a favourite subject of my high school teacher—wasn’t going to help us understand the ills of the Great Recession which had taken so many of our families’ livelihoods. No phony pilgrim story could sweep angsty teens, beholden by hormones, off their feet into sudden empathy and political literacy.
O Canada finished at 8:32, followed by the morning announcements over the Foucauldian intercom. And then it was right into American History, in a classroom without the big American flag of the movies, without the tweed of those movies’ high school teachers. Instead, we got a beaming Mrs. McGill: brimming with joy and excitement, a few scribbles on the board, and itching to get started.
“How lucky are we?”
Lucky for what? “How lucky are we that we get to spend time thinking about the United States at such a historic moment? In a couple of months, we’ll either have the first woman vice-president, or the first Black president! Regardless of your politics, we’re going to have so much fun studying the United States at a time of so much hope and possibility!”
Mrs. McGill’s excitement was infectious. A third into the semester, I moved up three rows to get a closer look at the board and pay attention better. I found myself getting excited over preparing for tutorials on historiography. (Of all things!) Our class debated and engaged with Constitutional clauses, interpreting the amendments, putting slavery into socio-legal context, and thinking about photographs and visual sources as items that could tell us a lot about political history. (Years later, this latter topic would find me again, and drive my project.)
Then November, the elections. CNN forecasted Obama as the winner based on exit polls. I jumped for joy in my basement, hitting my head on the low ceiling. Next morning, head still bruised from that joy, we called the night before a historic moment. One that scholars would later think about and study, and one which would end up in our children’s history textbooks. We imagined bringing our kids home from class, and they’d tell us about the Obama inauguration, and we’d wax poetic about our experiences while they’d roll their eyes at how long-winded we were. We’d talk about those signs, “Obama Inauguration Here,” as if they really were here, in East Scarborough, and not in the reclaimed wetlands of Northern Virginia.
Eight years later, as I trudged through a major field list in U.S. history, I couldn’t bring myself to watch the inauguration of the Orange Cheeto. I couldn’t help but feel like the scholars of the New Deal Order school in the wake of Ronald Reagan’s inauguration, asking themselves, “what happened?” It was, and still is, tempting to diagnose “what happened” that night in November. And as historians, it still is our civic duty to offer rigorous interpretations of what happened.
But a dangerous trap lurks in the stories we might tell. Take, for instance, that “declension narrative” of the New Deal Order, or of Civil Rights, an arc with a culmination that then closed upon itself, giving rise to an era of conservatism and a hardier preservation of an older status quo. I wonder if a similar declension story is waiting to be told through all the turmoil of today.
Yet, the memory of social reform and civil rights has some potent staying power. Amidst the co-opting of Martin Luther King’s speeches, there will be someone to temper that historical abuse. And in the contested evocations of “I Have A Dream,” that cliché—made boring by commemorations of that speech by the state that ordered his murder—refuses to shrivel up into official narrative. For every white liberal’s misuse of MLK to promote respectability politics, there is always someone who will cite a fuller spectrum of Civil Rights radicalism, and remind us of the hopes and dreams left unfinished. And there is always someone who will find another way to invoke the vision of Civil Rights, not as a relic of the past, but as the deadly and deserving work of the present.
So just as we might ask “what happened,” how valuable would “what might have happened” be as a historical question?
Richard White, the great historian of the American West, concluded his study of transcontinental railroads with a call to think counterfactually. “What could have happened?” White asks, wondering what would have happened if the railroads had been built at a time of economic prosperity, or at least at a time when the nation’s infrastructure actually needed them. Perhaps, he wonders, the forms of violence enacted by entrepreneurs such as Leland Stanford would have wreaked less havoc. Perhaps corruption would have been mediated, if not altogether wiped out.
Troubled by a break in historical method, one reviewer of Railroaded criticized White for a betrayal of the historian’s craft, accusing him of presentism and an infidelity to historical materials. For this reviewer, thinking counterfactually was among the several taboos of our work as historians. In his conclusion, Richard White might have touted lofty hopes and dreams, but they were not his alone: they were the hopes of the people in his archives and countless others who made their mark residually, equally aspirational and modern.
But for us who experienced that hefty balloon of hope in 2008, its weight filled slowly, churning and thickening, until its membrane burst into the orange toupé’d muck that litters the National Mall, taking a minimum of four years to wash off, but its half-life lasting about another forty—or four hundred—years into American history. Hope, that constellation of aspirations and evocations, speckled with material mobilizations and cultural creations, was certainly not “counterfactual.” Hope was—and still is, though transmogrified now—a historical fact, a reality that seeped north of the border, sparking the embers of a vibrant political culture. Like the Populists of Charles Postel’s study, the working-class Chicagoans of Lizabeth Cohen, and the El Progreso banana workers of Kevin Coleman, hope is as much historically real as it was a collective of possibilities. Powerful decisions and unpredictable contingencies may have foreclosed those possibilities, but they join the palimpsest of historical activity and subjectivity. They might have been erased, but their authors etched them too deeply into the paper to completely forget.
And we shouldn’t forget them, either. We can read these etchings in our research, what people hope might have happened, and what they tangibly did to try to achieve those ends. And in doing so, the historian might piece together a story where hope isn’t phony, but is the weighty foundation of politics.
We might first ask, “what happened?” followed by a “what might have happened?” But I would be excited to think about a history of how people, in their time, imagined what could happen, which terms would be easily achieved, and which ones still needed work to do. I’m not asking for a history of counterfactuals. I’m asking for a hopeful history, and a history of hope.