Jonathan Scott Holloway: Where Does a Historian Find the Truth?

holloway_jimWe are excited to have a guest post today from Jonathan Scott Holloway, author of Jim Crow Wisdom: Memory and Identity in Black America since 1940. In Jim Crow Wisdom, Holloway analyzes the role of race memories in developing, articulating, and fortifying a sense of communal identity among African Americans in the latter half of the twentieth century. Employing the methods of several academic disciplines as well as first-person narrative, Holloway investigates the various ways in which African Americans have used their own memories in forging racial identity before and after the civil rights movement, and considers the ways in which these memories have contributed to class consciousness and political ideologies in the United States. Fundamentally a book about the concept of black memory and identity-building, Jim Crow Wisdom is also a deeply personal project about the effect of group and individual memory on the construction of racial identity.

In a previous post, “Whose Dream? Whose History?” Holloway highlighted some of the unsung heroes of the civil rights movement. Here, he details some of the thought that led to the decision to write such an unorthodox book.


I had the title to Jim Crow Wisdom long before I had nailed the methodology. I didn’t know this at the time, of course, as I thought I would be writing a traditional third-person omniscient historian’s accounting of the stories that African Americans told about their past. I did know that I would be looking at an array of primary sources in this book—popular literature, memoir, film, dance, the built environment—but I never thought that I would detail my own family’s past in the process of writing a history of the linkages between narrative and identity.

During the course of research, however, I kept making discoveries that sounded awfully familiar. When I came across Langston Hughes’s recollection of getting kicked off of a streetcar when he was a child, I recalled my uncle’s stories about the segregated trolleys of his youth; when I looked more carefully at southern white scholars’ paranoia about miscegenation, I heard my (dark-skinned) father’s stories about being harassed—while in his Air Force uniform, mind you—when dating my (fair-skinned) mother; when I heard Joe Biden praise fellow senator Barack Obama for being “articulate and bright and clean,” I recalled my own moments of being faintly praised for being able to string together a proper sentence. I did not confuse the racial slights experienced during my own middle-class upbringing for the more intense racial traumas that seemed to define daily life for previous generations, but the more I came across the similarities in my subjects’ lives and my own, the more I realized that mixing the first-person perspective into the traditional third-person would offer fascinating benefits.

For one, being upfront about my first-person experiences and memories would give the reader refreshing clarity about my own investment in the history that they were reading. (As a consumer of nonfiction I always wondered what motivated an author to invest years of intellectual labor in a particular project. “Art for art’s sake” was never a satisfactory answer to me.) The second benefit that came with mixing voices is that it allowed me to ask much larger questions about the relationship of history to memory and truth to fiction.

By way of illustration, there is much in my own memory that I can track down and confirm as true or false. But in Jim Crow Wisdom, the literal truth is less important to me than the act of remembrance itself. This is the act that shapes a consciousness and an identity, and this is the act that I find most compelling in telling stories about the black past. In charting this course, I am embracing what Jeremy Popkin considers one of the historian’s greatest fears (and the reason most historians refrain from writing about themselves): that in exploring and sharing my own experiences I will complicate or even contradict “generalizations [that I and my] colleagues have painstakingly elaborated to make sense of the past.” So be it.

Making this methodological decision required that I think carefully about this work’s relationship to the archive. Trained as a historian to seek out archives to answer questions and to rely on archives as arbiters of truth, I now recognize that archives are repositories of a constructed truth—one that is highly mediated by government officials, estate executors, authors, and families in advance of a collection’s donation. When considered in this light, one can understand Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s perceptive claim that the archive is a place where facts are “assembled.”

I still rely on and value deeply these brick-and-mortar archives, but my research in Jim Crow Wisdom has taught me to value the archive of the imagination as well. Like any archive, the imagination is a place that is fundamentally about assemblage: a mixture of our best efforts to remember the past accurately, the eroding effects of time, and a desire for narrative clarity and poignancy. Relying on the imagination for its archival properties is central to this book and helps us develop a richer sense of memory and of history.

Ironically, breaking the historians’ rules has made me a better historian.

Jonathan Scott Holloway is professor of history, African American studies, and American studies at Yale University. Jim Crow Wisdom is his fourth book.