Last week I wrote a couple of posts in response to Ta-Nehisi Coates’s piece “Hope and the Historians.” I began by posting a quote from the article. I then published a reader feedback post with some commentary on Coates’s piece. Here is what I wrote:
I don’t know of any historians worth their salt who begin their investigations of the past in search of something “hopeful.” I need to think about this some more, but I am not sure that “hopefulness” is a category of historical analysis. I am not sure who Coates is referring to here. Perhaps he is referring to folks who dabble in the past to make political points in the present. I would not call these people “historians.”
I would also say that Coates is making a theological statement here. His remarks about human nature have an Augustinian quality to them, Coates’s words read like a rebuke to the progressive view of human history that defines our profession.
My tentative suggestion that “hopefulness” is not a “category of historical analysis” got the attention of Chris Gehrz over at the Pietist Schoolman. Chris writes: “John tentatively declines to describe hopefulness as a ‘category of historical analysis’ and instead concludes that ‘Coates is making a theological statement here.’ I’m not sure it’s that easy, at least for historians who adhere to a religion that holds hope to be one of its three cardinal virtues.
Gerhz goes on to make an argument for why Christian historians should integrate the theological idea of hope into their work:
I think historians should interpret, describe, write about, etc. people in the past who had hope. For example, I don’t see how one understands the history of slavery without understanding the meaning of hope. Historians should not shy away from hope as a concept that has motivated millions and millions of people in the past. They should take it seriously in their work.
In the correspondence and comments I have received about my original posts several folks have suggested that as Christians they cannot embrace Coates’s hopelessness. I agree with them. But like the doctrine of “providence,” I am not sure how a belief in “hope” gets us any closer to understanding the past.
Others have brought up the teaching of history as a hopeful act. Again, I agree that teaching students to hope (and work) for meaningful change in this world is a very good thing. I also think that students can be inspired by hopeful people who they encounter in the past. But I don’t see how a historian’s belief in hope–Christian or otherwise–helps us make sense of the past.
I know my thoughts here are very scattered and rough (please remember that this is a blog). I am willing to be persuaded. In fact, there is a part of me that wants to be persuaded. I remain hopeful that someone can convince me that hope might be a useful tool in my Christian historian’s toolbox in the same way that it is a Christian virtue I want to cultivate in my life.