Martha S. Jones
Society of Black Alumni Presidential Professor, Professor of History and of the SNF Agora Institute
Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore
Born in 1958 in New York City, N.Y., USA
Studied Psychology at Hunter College, Law at CUNY School of Law, and History at Columbia University
Hard HistoriesHard Histories examines the role of historical thinking in processes of reckoning with the difficult, unwelcome, and even unspeakable past. They shatter old myths and open up new ways forward. “Hard” points to how difficult it is to dislodge a mythical past, while also pointing to how new historical truths threaten to humble, destabilize, and transform us. Hard histories is also a practice that reckons with the difficulties of reinterpreting the historical archival record while also changing it.
Historians often speak to other historians – a debate we term historiography – while hard histories speak to those outside the academy. Hard histories chal¬lenge popular narratives while also valuing transparency, collaboration, an ethics of care, and public-facing knowledge production that builds bridges, relationships, and new modes of storytelling.
Hard histories invite a look inward at what happens when historians counter mythical tellings of the past. Lessons surface. Denial is a force distinct from the archival record. Subterfuge distorts understanding. Values – tradition, reputa-tion, and excellence – keep myths afloat. Hollow gestures paper over vestiges of a troubled past. Academic explanations of the past run counter to those of families, communities, and critics who stand in defense of the myths we aim to dispel.
Hard histories in the U.S. have been especially brought to bear on the past of slavery, settler colonialism, and racism, shattering myths and replacing them with new histories. Still, we must ask where hard histories end and new futures begin. We must ask, “Who owns history?” I am a historian unearthing how slavery and racism are embedded in the present and also a descendant of women enslaved in 19th-century America. Hard histories expose not only how the histories we tell have changed. It reveals how who tells those histories has changed, too.
Jones, Martha S. All Bound Up Together: The Woman Question in African American Public Culture, 1830–1900. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007.
—. Birthright Citizens: A History of Race and Rights in Antebellum America. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018.
—. Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All. New York: Basic Books, 2020.