Decolonizing the AHR

Decolonizing the AHR Long after the actual transfer of power from colonial masters to liberated peoples, the sovereign nations that emerged from imperialism’s grasp struggled to shake off empire’s hold on the national imagination, not to mention postcolonial social and class structure. Indeed, with political sovereignty, the process of decolonization had only just begun. Similarly, fifty years—yes, a half-century!—after the initial victories of the civil rights revolution in the United States, parts of the country have only now contemplated tearing down monuments to white supremacy and started to acknowledge and apologize for the history of racial terror that shaped and scarred many—probably most—American communities. This comes at a time when the current president of the United States persists in recycling some of the most shopworn tropes from the nation’s long history of racism and xenophobia, all while loudly (and unconvincingly) claiming, “I am not a racist.” Many historians find ourselves wondering if the culture at large has listened to a word we have been saying for at least a generation of scholarship. Historians and the historical profession would do well, however, to turn such a critique upon ourselves. As the Confederate monuments are veiled, as the university buildings are rechristened (or not), as Rhodes falls from his majestic perch in front of the University of Cape Town, as the curriculum at Oxbridge is revamped, as we mark 1492 as a moment of genocide rather than one of discovery, as streets in Berlin are renamed after African freedom fighters rather than murderous German commanders of the colonial Schutztruppe, as European nations discover that they have a slave-trading as well as an abolitionist legacy—well, what about the American Historical Review? What has “the official publication of the American Historical Association” done to rectify decades of exclusionary practice, during which women, people of color, immigrants, and colonized and indigenous people were effectively silenced as producers of scholarship and subjects of historical study? This requires more than a well-intentioned commitment to “diversity,” which consists primarily of adding extra flavors to the stew. “Decolonization,” as the movements for the transformation of historical consciousness listed above have reminded us, is about changing the recipe altogether. It would be easy enough, as I usually do in this space, to comb through back issues of the AHR to illustrate the appalling lack of diversity in our pages over much of the journal’s 123-year history. Maybe I would unearth a few nuggets that would allow me to demonstrate that there were always some exceptions to the rule. At the very least, such an exercise would permit me to claim that while things were just terrible back then, they have improved mightily over the past decade or two or three. And no doubt they have. Just during the few years I have been associated with the journal, I would point to Marjoleine Kars’s prize-winning article on gender and slave rebellion, Laurie Marhoefer’s exploration of gender non-conformity during the Third Reich, Sayaka Chatani’s article on colonial Taiwan under the Japanese, Carina Ray’s prize-winning article on race and sex in the colonial Gold Coast, Marcy Norton’s article on the relationship between animals and indigenous people in Latin America, Céline Carayon’s article on the interplay of Native American and Western systems of sign language, and featured reviews of books on mass incarceration and race, not to mention the forum on gender in this very issue, as examples of scholarship unimaginable in the recesses of the journal’s history. And I would note that our “boilerplate” on the web page inviting submissions at least gestures in this direction. Since I suspect that few people read this statement, allow me to reproduce some of it here: For much of its history, the AHR published essays primarily on the history of North America and Western Europe, largely because they constituted the bulk of our submissions, but also because of a Western bias as to what was considered historically of value … the editors have in recent decades actively encouraged, and continue to encourage, the submission of manuscripts on Africa, Asia, Oceania, Latin America, and the Middle East … Thematically, an earlier concentration on political history has been broadened in the AHR (as elsewhere in the discipline) with a diverse array of topics. Cultural history and historiography now have a more prominent place in our pages than they once did, as do the history of race and gender and, more recently, LGBTQ, environmental, digital, transnational, and global history, to name but a few vibrant areas of inquiry. But instead of self-congratulation for the achievements the journal has already made in its effort to reflect more accurately the changing nature of the profession, I would prefer to acknowledge that when it comes to “decolonization,” the AHR still has a way to go. This was brought home most forcefully by our error in publishing a book review last year that contained a very thinly disguised racist “dog whistle” that we missed, but I am sure there are other examples. Rather than simply apologize and move on, I have come to believe that the AHR should take the risk of confronting its own potential complicity in the inability of the profession to divest itself fully of its past lack of openness to scholars and scholarship due to race, color, creed, gender, sexuality, nationality, and a host of other assigned characteristics. I could issue stringent denials, continue to point to the inevitable exceptions (as I do above), or wallow in a mea culpa. Instead, I want to describe the initial steps the Board of Editors and I have decided upon to make the journal more responsive to the exciting new voices that are challenging the historical profession to live up to its responsibilities to a diverse society. At the January meeting of the Board, held at the AHA’s Annual Meeting, we resolved to take these actions: Recommend to the AHA Council that the Board of Editors be expanded from thirteen to sixteen members, with an eye to diversifying the Board. Such expansion can be coupled with a far less rigid adherence to defining Board slots solely by geographic and chronological “field,” as has long been the practice, with such appointments based instead on thematic and/or topical criteria. As mandated by the AHA Council at the 2018 meeting, the Editor will nominate new “Associate Review Editors,” with an eye to providing an additional means of diversifying editorial practices in the journal’s “Reviews” section. These Associate Review Editors will consult on which books and other materials to review, and how best to match potential reviewers with books and other materials. The Board of Editors will sponsor a session at the 2019 Annual Meeting in Chicago that will address directly the question of professional diversity and the AHR. Meanwhile, the Editor and the Board will collect data on past AHR submissions, reviews, and publishing patterns, to be used by participants in the 2019 session. The criteria for selecting reviewers of books and other media will be modified. The AHR will no longer require prospective reviewers to have published a monograph. Instead, potential reviewers must have (a) published a peer-reviewed article; (b) published a book review in a historical journal; and (c) have a larger scholarly project of some kind in the works. (Reviewers will still be expected to have a Ph.D. or its equivalent.) We have already begun to implement this change toward making our reviewer database more reflective of the current demographics of the profession. In addition, the AHR will no longer automatically exclude from the pool of potential reviewers every single person mentioned in the acknowledgments. Instead, the Editor, Associate Editor, and Reviews Editor, in conjunction with the Editorial Assistants, will develop a narrower list of specific excluded categories. This too should substantially widen and potentially diversify the pool of reviewers. The Editor will ask members of the Board to serve as “AHR ambassadors” by addressing attendees at appropriate conferences to explain AHR submission procedures and encourage/solicit submissions. Such conferences might include, for example, the Berkshire Conference of Women Historians, the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association, the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, and the National Association of Chicana and Chicano Studies. The leaders of these organizations and others are invited to remind the AHR editorial staff of their meeting dates, and to invite a member of the Board to address their meetings. The Editor and Board will create an ad hoc committee of three people to address questions of diversity and the AHR on a regular basis. While not an exhaustive list, these are the major initiatives we have decided to take—for now. The creation of the ad hoc committee ensures that we will be able to identify other steps to take in the future, and to evaluate the effectiveness of these efforts. Careful readers will immediately observe that I have said nothing about revising our procedures for evaluating article submissions. That’s because I believe that our thorough process of blind peer review, far from setting up barriers, is in fact highly democratic. Our large number of reader reports (five or six) and multiple requests for revision (the average number of revisions made is four, and some articles will be revised five or six times before acceptance) reward scholars willing to work closely with the anonymous readers and the editors to improve their article and speak to as wide a scholarly readership as possible. Ideally, this creates a fruitful dialogue about a manuscript, rather than serving an elitist gatekeeping function. In fact, the latter goal would be best achieved by only publishing already polished work by experienced scholars, after vetting it with one or two of the usual suspects. This might make publishing in the AHR “easier,” but it would in my estimation reward those who already benefit from academic privilege, and shut out those who might have less opportunity but more perseverance. Those scholars who have published in the AHR—and more than a few have done so early in their careers—nearly always testify to the benefits of the process, even if they might at the time have wished it had taken a bit less sweat. That said, we have also determined in the future to make more room in the journal for less conventional essays, which will invite a wider array of voices into our pages with a somewhat less intensive manuscript peer review process. In the reviews section, this will include features such as film reviews, reviews of public history sites, reviews of graphic histories, and reviews of historical fiction. In our articles section, we will continue our newly inaugurated concept of “Reappraisals” of bygone classics in the field. New initiatives also include our podcast, the “AHR Interview”; historiographic essays on non-English-language scholarship; and a series of essays on new sources called “In the Field.” Each of these categories creates the opportunity for commissions from a wide array of scholars who might not otherwise choose to publish in the AHR. I recognize that for some critics of the AHR, the modest changes I describe above will not go nearly far enough. But, at least in this instance, I am a believer in achievable, incremental change, taken boldly and with vision. I have no illusions about what an enormous challenge this will be, and I fully expect it will make people unhappy on both sides of the barricades. There will be failures and limitations, and the pace of change may not satisfy everyone. However, my fervent hope is that by the time my editorship ends in August 2021, I will have set the journal on an irrevocable course of change. Judging from the most recent AHA Annual Meeting, the profession itself is changing, much for the better. The program reflected an enormous array of voices and fields and generations; the crowds in the elevators and lounges and book exhibit struck me as much more diverse than I recall in the past; the profession openly confronted the problem of sexual harassment and gendered imbalances of power; and the most vibrant and well-attended receptions were those sponsored by the AHA Committee on Minority Historians and the AHA Committee on LGBTQ Status in the Profession. This Annual Meeting looked and felt remarkably different from the first one I attended in the late 1980s; the long-overdue transformation is enormously welcome and promises to be beneficial for historical knowledge and serious scholarship. The AHR should surely strive to be just as transformed, and to embrace the effort of shaking off the heavy burden of the profession’s past.                         A.C.L. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press. http://www.deepdyve.com/assets/images/DeepDyve-Logo-lg.png The American Historical Review Oxford University Press

Decolonizing the AHR

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Publisher
Oxford University Press
Copyright
© The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press.
ISSN
0002-8762
eISSN
1937-5239
D.O.I.
10.1093/ahr/123.1.xiv
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Abstract

Long after the actual transfer of power from colonial masters to liberated peoples, the sovereign nations that emerged from imperialism’s grasp struggled to shake off empire’s hold on the national imagination, not to mention postcolonial social and class structure. Indeed, with political sovereignty, the process of decolonization had only just begun. Similarly, fifty years—yes, a half-century!—after the initial victories of the civil rights revolution in the United States, parts of the country have only now contemplated tearing down monuments to white supremacy and started to acknowledge and apologize for the history of racial terror that shaped and scarred many—probably most—American communities. This comes at a time when the current president of the United States persists in recycling some of the most shopworn tropes from the nation’s long history of racism and xenophobia, all while loudly (and unconvincingly) claiming, “I am not a racist.” Many historians find ourselves wondering if the culture at large has listened to a word we have been saying for at least a generation of scholarship. Historians and the historical profession would do well, however, to turn such a critique upon ourselves. As the Confederate monuments are veiled, as the university buildings are rechristened (or not), as Rhodes falls from his majestic perch in front of the University of Cape Town, as the curriculum at Oxbridge is revamped, as we mark 1492 as a moment of genocide rather than one of discovery, as streets in Berlin are renamed after African freedom fighters rather than murderous German commanders of the colonial Schutztruppe, as European nations discover that they have a slave-trading as well as an abolitionist legacy—well, what about the American Historical Review? What has “the official publication of the American Historical Association” done to rectify decades of exclusionary practice, during which women, people of color, immigrants, and colonized and indigenous people were effectively silenced as producers of scholarship and subjects of historical study? This requires more than a well-intentioned commitment to “diversity,” which consists primarily of adding extra flavors to the stew. “Decolonization,” as the movements for the transformation of historical consciousness listed above have reminded us, is about changing the recipe altogether. It would be easy enough, as I usually do in this space, to comb through back issues of the AHR to illustrate the appalling lack of diversity in our pages over much of the journal’s 123-year history. Maybe I would unearth a few nuggets that would allow me to demonstrate that there were always some exceptions to the rule. At the very least, such an exercise would permit me to claim that while things were just terrible back then, they have improved mightily over the past decade or two or three. And no doubt they have. Just during the few years I have been associated with the journal, I would point to Marjoleine Kars’s prize-winning article on gender and slave rebellion, Laurie Marhoefer’s exploration of gender non-conformity during the Third Reich, Sayaka Chatani’s article on colonial Taiwan under the Japanese, Carina Ray’s prize-winning article on race and sex in the colonial Gold Coast, Marcy Norton’s article on the relationship between animals and indigenous people in Latin America, Céline Carayon’s article on the interplay of Native American and Western systems of sign language, and featured reviews of books on mass incarceration and race, not to mention the forum on gender in this very issue, as examples of scholarship unimaginable in the recesses of the journal’s history. And I would note that our “boilerplate” on the web page inviting submissions at least gestures in this direction. Since I suspect that few people read this statement, allow me to reproduce some of it here: For much of its history, the AHR published essays primarily on the history of North America and Western Europe, largely because they constituted the bulk of our submissions, but also because of a Western bias as to what was considered historically of value … the editors have in recent decades actively encouraged, and continue to encourage, the submission of manuscripts on Africa, Asia, Oceania, Latin America, and the Middle East … Thematically, an earlier concentration on political history has been broadened in the AHR (as elsewhere in the discipline) with a diverse array of topics. Cultural history and historiography now have a more prominent place in our pages than they once did, as do the history of race and gender and, more recently, LGBTQ, environmental, digital, transnational, and global history, to name but a few vibrant areas of inquiry. But instead of self-congratulation for the achievements the journal has already made in its effort to reflect more accurately the changing nature of the profession, I would prefer to acknowledge that when it comes to “decolonization,” the AHR still has a way to go. This was brought home most forcefully by our error in publishing a book review last year that contained a very thinly disguised racist “dog whistle” that we missed, but I am sure there are other examples. Rather than simply apologize and move on, I have come to believe that the AHR should take the risk of confronting its own potential complicity in the inability of the profession to divest itself fully of its past lack of openness to scholars and scholarship due to race, color, creed, gender, sexuality, nationality, and a host of other assigned characteristics. I could issue stringent denials, continue to point to the inevitable exceptions (as I do above), or wallow in a mea culpa. Instead, I want to describe the initial steps the Board of Editors and I have decided upon to make the journal more responsive to the exciting new voices that are challenging the historical profession to live up to its responsibilities to a diverse society. At the January meeting of the Board, held at the AHA’s Annual Meeting, we resolved to take these actions: Recommend to the AHA Council that the Board of Editors be expanded from thirteen to sixteen members, with an eye to diversifying the Board. Such expansion can be coupled with a far less rigid adherence to defining Board slots solely by geographic and chronological “field,” as has long been the practice, with such appointments based instead on thematic and/or topical criteria. As mandated by the AHA Council at the 2018 meeting, the Editor will nominate new “Associate Review Editors,” with an eye to providing an additional means of diversifying editorial practices in the journal’s “Reviews” section. These Associate Review Editors will consult on which books and other materials to review, and how best to match potential reviewers with books and other materials. The Board of Editors will sponsor a session at the 2019 Annual Meeting in Chicago that will address directly the question of professional diversity and the AHR. Meanwhile, the Editor and the Board will collect data on past AHR submissions, reviews, and publishing patterns, to be used by participants in the 2019 session. The criteria for selecting reviewers of books and other media will be modified. The AHR will no longer require prospective reviewers to have published a monograph. Instead, potential reviewers must have (a) published a peer-reviewed article; (b) published a book review in a historical journal; and (c) have a larger scholarly project of some kind in the works. (Reviewers will still be expected to have a Ph.D. or its equivalent.) We have already begun to implement this change toward making our reviewer database more reflective of the current demographics of the profession. In addition, the AHR will no longer automatically exclude from the pool of potential reviewers every single person mentioned in the acknowledgments. Instead, the Editor, Associate Editor, and Reviews Editor, in conjunction with the Editorial Assistants, will develop a narrower list of specific excluded categories. This too should substantially widen and potentially diversify the pool of reviewers. The Editor will ask members of the Board to serve as “AHR ambassadors” by addressing attendees at appropriate conferences to explain AHR submission procedures and encourage/solicit submissions. Such conferences might include, for example, the Berkshire Conference of Women Historians, the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association, the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, and the National Association of Chicana and Chicano Studies. The leaders of these organizations and others are invited to remind the AHR editorial staff of their meeting dates, and to invite a member of the Board to address their meetings. The Editor and Board will create an ad hoc committee of three people to address questions of diversity and the AHR on a regular basis. While not an exhaustive list, these are the major initiatives we have decided to take—for now. The creation of the ad hoc committee ensures that we will be able to identify other steps to take in the future, and to evaluate the effectiveness of these efforts. Careful readers will immediately observe that I have said nothing about revising our procedures for evaluating article submissions. That’s because I believe that our thorough process of blind peer review, far from setting up barriers, is in fact highly democratic. Our large number of reader reports (five or six) and multiple requests for revision (the average number of revisions made is four, and some articles will be revised five or six times before acceptance) reward scholars willing to work closely with the anonymous readers and the editors to improve their article and speak to as wide a scholarly readership as possible. Ideally, this creates a fruitful dialogue about a manuscript, rather than serving an elitist gatekeeping function. In fact, the latter goal would be best achieved by only publishing already polished work by experienced scholars, after vetting it with one or two of the usual suspects. This might make publishing in the AHR “easier,” but it would in my estimation reward those who already benefit from academic privilege, and shut out those who might have less opportunity but more perseverance. Those scholars who have published in the AHR—and more than a few have done so early in their careers—nearly always testify to the benefits of the process, even if they might at the time have wished it had taken a bit less sweat. That said, we have also determined in the future to make more room in the journal for less conventional essays, which will invite a wider array of voices into our pages with a somewhat less intensive manuscript peer review process. In the reviews section, this will include features such as film reviews, reviews of public history sites, reviews of graphic histories, and reviews of historical fiction. In our articles section, we will continue our newly inaugurated concept of “Reappraisals” of bygone classics in the field. New initiatives also include our podcast, the “AHR Interview”; historiographic essays on non-English-language scholarship; and a series of essays on new sources called “In the Field.” Each of these categories creates the opportunity for commissions from a wide array of scholars who might not otherwise choose to publish in the AHR. I recognize that for some critics of the AHR, the modest changes I describe above will not go nearly far enough. But, at least in this instance, I am a believer in achievable, incremental change, taken boldly and with vision. I have no illusions about what an enormous challenge this will be, and I fully expect it will make people unhappy on both sides of the barricades. There will be failures and limitations, and the pace of change may not satisfy everyone. However, my fervent hope is that by the time my editorship ends in August 2021, I will have set the journal on an irrevocable course of change. Judging from the most recent AHA Annual Meeting, the profession itself is changing, much for the better. The program reflected an enormous array of voices and fields and generations; the crowds in the elevators and lounges and book exhibit struck me as much more diverse than I recall in the past; the profession openly confronted the problem of sexual harassment and gendered imbalances of power; and the most vibrant and well-attended receptions were those sponsored by the AHA Committee on Minority Historians and the AHA Committee on LGBTQ Status in the Profession. This Annual Meeting looked and felt remarkably different from the first one I attended in the late 1980s; the long-overdue transformation is enormously welcome and promises to be beneficial for historical knowledge and serious scholarship. The AHR should surely strive to be just as transformed, and to embrace the effort of shaking off the heavy burden of the profession’s past.                         A.C.L. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press.

Journal

The American Historical ReviewOxford University Press

Published: Feb 1, 2018

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