At Home with Harvard: Rewriting History

From race and colonization to genetics and paleohistory, our favorite stories about the people reshaping the study of history

This is the eighth installment in Harvard Magazine’s series “At Home with Harvard,” a guide to what to read, watch, listen to, and do while social distancing. Read the prior pieces, featuring stories about Harvard’s Arnold Arboretum, famous and not-so-famous Harvardians in the movies, pathbreaking medicine, and more, here.

Harvard Magazine’s unique access to Harvard’s faculty gives us the privilege of getting to know University professors, go deep into their work, and bring it to readers in a format rarely seen in other publications. History is a discipline that has evolved rapidly in recent decades, giving rise to new historical interpretations and methods that you may not be used to from high-school or college courses. Here are some of our favorite stories about the people reshaping the study of history, from new interpretations of race, colonization, and empire, to the use of genetic evidence and other scientific techniques to investigate paleohistory. 


The past decade or so has seen a surge of new scholarship on race, crime, and mass incarceration, upending long-held assumptions and forcing reappraisals of the historical record. One of the first major texts in this trend was The Condemnation of Blackness, by Harvard historian Khalil Muhammad. That book, which came out in 2010, investigates a potent idea: that race and crime are connected—in other words, that African Americans are by nature more likely to break the law. In the American popular imagination, that concept sometimes seems eternal, but Muhammad finds its actual origin in the 1890 census. It’s an impressive bit of archival detective work, and in following the trail over the course of a decade or so, Muhammad unearthed a whole cast of little-known events, connections, and characters, including the fascinating and malign Frederick L. Hoffman—the pioneering nineteenth-century statistician who, Muhammad discovered, “wrote crime into race.”  


Khalil Gibran Muhammad
Photograph by Stu Rosner

Condemnation is a book that fundamentally altered my way of thinking and understanding the world, and in 2018, I spent several months researching a profile of Muhammad, who teaches in the Kennedy School. Listening to him talk about how his research into this question developed, it was striking to realize that the events that shaped his own life, as a black man coming of age in Chicago and Philadelphia, followed many of the same contours that he was studying in documents from a century before.  

Elizabeth Hinton
Photograph by Stu Rosner

Two other important texts in this wave of new scholarship: historian Elizabeth Hinton’s From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime, which shows how mass incarceration first began—not under law-and-order Republicans (though they helped grow and perpetuate it), but under LBJ’s liberal Democratic administration. In fact, Hinton finds—in research also grounded in her own background and upbringing, which she discussed in a Harvard Magazine profile—that the present-day carceral state is a thoroughly bipartisan project. 

Bryan Stevenson
Photograph by Tia Chapman

And Just Mercy, by civil-rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson, J.D.-M.P.A. ’85, LL.D. ’15, a searing memoir of brutality and racial injustice in the criminal-justice system. Stevenson is the founder and executive director of the Alabama nonprofit Equal Justice Initiative, which recently opened a museum and memorial to victims of lynching in the United States. In 2017 he visited Cambridge and spoke about white supremacy in one of the most haunting, memorable lectures I’ve ever heard. 

~Lydialyle Gibson, Associate Editor


Philip J. Deloria
Photograph by Jim Harrison

Writing this profile of Philip Deloria, Harvard’s first tenured professor of Native American history, was maybe my favorite experience working at Harvard Magazine. I first encountered him by chance more than two years ago, at a captivating lecture about American Indian modernist artist Mary Sully, soon after he first arrived at Harvard. I immediately knew this was someone special, and that I wanted to dig deeper. Since the 1990s, Deloria has defined Native American studies. His groundbreaking book Playing Indian is all about white people dressing up as Native Americans, or “playing Indian,” from the Boston Tea Party through the present. America’s national identity rests on the image of the American Indian, he argues. In an interview, Deloria recalled the moment in graduate school that seeded the idea: he was in a lecture class where images of Boy Scouts dressed up as Indians were projected on the screen. “And then it’s not hard to go to the Boston Tea Party. I was like, damn, Americans have been doing this in different forms, but with similar practice, from the very beginning. I wonder what that’s about,” he says. “It was one of the most amazing thought moments of my life.” Reading Deloria’s books for this feature was a delight and revelation, and I couldn’t recommend them more highly. 

Vincent Brown adapted several eighteenth-century maps of Jamaica to create his own narrative map of Tacky’s Revolt
Map courtesy of Vince Brown

Earlier this year, I finished “History from Below,” a profile of another historian doing fascinating, and field-defining, new work: Vince Brown. Brown is a historian of slavery during the era of European colonization, and his research has led him to see slavery as a kind of warfare—and to see slave rebellions as part of the web of war that shaped the history of the Atlantic. His latest book tells the story of Tacky’s Revolt, the massive Jamaican slave revolt of the same name, that relied on the rebels’ military training as soldiers in West Africa. Revolts like these reverberated across the Americas and helped bring about the end of the slave trade. They also helped forge perceived links between blackness and violence that endure to this day. Brown views African-American history squarely in this context: “Often in conversations about African-American history and African-American politics, we don’t situate them as firmly as I think we ought to in the context of empire and militarization and warfare.”

The St. Louis, Missouri, skyline on the Mississippi River, as seen from East St. Louis, Illinois 
Photograph by Visions of America/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

More recently, I wrote about historian Walter Johnson, a good friend of Vince Brown’s, in “From Lewis and Clark to Michael Brown.” This story focuses on Johnson’s new history of St. Louis, a deeply personal subject for me as a St. Louis native. Harvard Magazine has also covered Johnson’s award-winning previous book River of Dark Dreams, about the development of American plantation slavery into a fully capitalist economy. 

Karen King
Photograph by Stu Rosner

I still think about this 2018 feature by my colleague Lydia Gibson, “The Bits the Bible Left Out,” about historian of early Christianity Karen King, a professor at Harvard Divinity School. In college, King first learned that there were Christian texts that didn’t make it into the Bible. “Why these texts and not those?” she wondered. And: “Who decided, and why?” These questions would define her career. This is an unusual and thoroughly engrossing read. 

~Marina Bolotnikova, Associate Editor


Michael McCormick
Photograph by Jim Harrison

What happens when well-established national histories are placed in a global context? Suddenly, for example, European industrialists and financiers of the global cotton trade come into focus as architects of the slave culture that emerged in the cotton-growing American South, upending the American myth of self-determination. What happens, asks Goelet professor of medieval history Michael McCormick, when scientific evidence suddenly sheds light on classes of people who had no voice when they lived, or on events that went unrecorded? In England, who killed the Romano-Celtic men, who rapidly disappeared from the archaeological and historical record in the fifth and sixth centuries? These are the revelations of the new histories. 


Ofer Bar-Yosef
Photograph from Wikimedia/Public Domain

The origins of modern humans, from a cultural and anthropological point of view, was the life’s work of Ofer Bar-Yosef, who passed away this past March. Harvard Magazine covered his work extensively, from insights about paleolithic fast food, to the first cultivated plant. He believed that the emergence of modern humans was a technological and cultural revolution, rather than a genetic leap forward. 

~Jonathan Shaw, Managing Editor


More from “At Home with Harvard”

  • Spring Blooms: Your guide to accessing the Arnold Arboretum as the seasons turn in Boston
  • Harvard in the Movies: Our favorite stories about Harvardians on screen
  • The Literary Life: Our best stories about the practice and study of literature 
  • Night at the Museum: Our coverage of Harvard’s rich museums and collections
  • Nature Walks: Walking, running, and biking in Greater Boston’s green spaces, even while social distancing
  • Supporting Local Businesses: Our extensive coverage of local restaurants and retailers, and how you can support them during this time of crisis
  • Medical Breakthroughs: Our best stories going deep into the ideas and personalities that will shape the medical care of tomorrow

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