“Instead of making history, we are made by history.” The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. meant the words as an admonition to his congregation when he addressed them in 1954. As black Americans who’d been yoked first to slavery and then to Jim Crow, King argued, they had allowed themselves to be passively molded by larger historical forces. The time had come to become the history-makers.
King saw these two things — making history and being made by history — as opposing forces. As historians, we see them as two parts of a process: In order to make history, we first have to understand how history has made us.
That’s the goal behind this section of The Washington Post, Made by History. In an era seemingly defined by the word unprecedented, it’s easy to feel like political, technological and social revolutions have severed our link to history. But revolutions are as much a product of the past as a break with it. We need to understand the history behind the breakneck news.
Each day in this space, you’ll find historical analyses to situate the events making headlines in their larger historical context. Sometimes, that will mean explaining the origins of policy battles; sometimes, it will involve illuminating the social and cultural pathways that led our society to fracture in just this way; other times, it will mean grappling with parallels between the past and present.
Some of the historical topics we cover will be big and familiar, and others will come from the tapestry of smaller, local events that changed American society and politics, then disappeared from our collective memory. The content and the contributors will be diverse. We’ll cover political, cultural and legal happenings, America’s changing role in the world and anything else that people who care about civic life might be discussing. The perspectives may surprise or challenge you, and often we’ll strive to offer multiple viewpoints on a controversy.
Made by History is edited by a team of professional historians. The two of us — Brian Rosenwald, a historian at the University of Pennsylvania, and Nicole Hemmer, a professor and writer at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center — serve as the site’s editors-in-chief. We are joined by co-editor Kathryn Cramer Brownell, an assistant professor of history at Purdue University, and we can all be reached at email@example.com.
As historians, we want to peel back the curtain around what historians do. Commentators often harangue the profession for going beyond teaching facts and dates. But that critique misunderstands our job. Historical analysis is as much about a way of thinking as it is about synthesizing facts and dates. Historians aim to make sense of the debates of the past — and spend much of their time debating what drove historical actors, and how and why historical moments unfolded the way they did.
Our writers will sometimes disagree with one another as they argue over the past. But they won’t distort or weaponize history. In the hands of politicians and commentators, history often becomes a tool to advance agendas with little regard for the complexities of the past. Which is why we need historians to weigh in on current events: Good professional historians don’t bend facts to fit into an agenda, or allow their perspective on current political questions to warp their analysis of the past.
In the era of President Trump, so much feels new and jarring. Made by History will make clear, however, that many of the debates roiling society today are the same struggles that we’ve had throughout American history. We’ll shine a light on why so many Americans feel so aggrieved, and why they see the world and their place in it so differently. In the process, we hope to reveal how the men and women making history every day were first made by history.
To submit articles to Made by History, email firstname.lastname@example.org.