History and the Complexity of Life
Often, disciplines will try to push us into boxes. “This is political, that is religious, the other is racial, etc.” But for people committed to understanding and uncovering the stories of the past, we are engaging questions about life, and life doesn’t always fit into boxes. Often lived experience functions in the “in-between.” Thus, empire is as much about gender as it is about race and religion and politics and economics and ability and imperialism because empire is constructed by lived beings who live in those intersections, creating and responding to systems that speak to those intersections. Now, this is not to say deploying or privileging these categories is not helpful at times. Indeed, there is something to be said, for example, about how the construction of the U.S. empire in the 19th century was as much a political project—dealing with economics, party politics, and law—as it was a religious one—dealing with morals, values, communal practices, symbols, and liturgies. But when we deploy these categories, we need to be clear on how we use them and why.
Ultimately, for historians, our job is to uncover the stories of the past to help make sense of our present and provide a vision for our future. Such a project is as much descriptive—what happened—as it is analytic—what does this mean, how do we engage it. Put differently, history is as much about what happened as it is about how we interpret what happened. And as critical thinkers who are interested in uncovering the stories of life—which is in many ways the basis of the historical project—we must be able to engage the multivalent, intersectional, sometimes contradictory ways those stories exist. Because only then will we be able to understand and, hopefully, deconstruct righteous empires and replace them with something new that nurtures and fosters life.