The Chronicle of Higher Education
By Shane White
The trouble often begins at the border. Some 15 years ago, when I was flying from my home in Australia to a history conference somewhere on the East Coast of America, I had my usual trouble getting past the ever-vigilant immigration officials guarding LAX at a ridiculously early hour of the morning.
"What is it that you do for a living, Mr. White?" The reply—"I'm a historian"—elicited a raised eyebrow.
"What sort of history?"
"I write about black Americans."
The eyebrow got raised several notches higher, and there was a long, ruminative pause. "Why are you coming to America?"
"To give a paper at a conference."
By this time the official was getting a little agitated and fired back another question: "How long is this paper?"
My answer—"Oh, about 30 minutes"—was too much. A look of incredulity passed across his face: "Why on earth didn't you just mail it?"
Jet-lagged, all I could manage was stunned silence. Shaking his head, the official stamped my passport and wearily waved me through.
Several things seemed to be troubling the immigration official, and looming large among them was the self-evident preposterousness of a foreigner having anything to say to Americans about their history. That concern is still common enough, although a tad strange—after all, many members of most history departments in the United States teach and write about other countries. But then maybe American history really is as exceptional as Americans have so often claimed, able to be appreciated and understood only by its own citizens.
Of course, that has not stopped a host of Americans from offering me encouragement and advice in that cheerily urgent American way. Another time at LAX, I was hauled out of the line and grilled about the reason for my existence. When told that I was flying on to New York to do research, the immigration officer barked back, "There's history out there," pointing in the general direction of downtown Los Angeles, or conceivably New York in the far distance. "Go and do it!" I still occasionally wake up in a sweat wondering what that little exchange was all about.
One day in the New York Public Library, the man using the microfilm reader next to me, curious about why I was reading a 19th-century New York newspaper, asked me what I was doing. Probably it was my Australian accent, but when I told him that I wrote about African-Americans, he felt compelled to help: "Yeah, slavery ended in New York in 1823." Unable to curb myself, I replied, "Well, the generally accepted date is July 4, 1827." After a pause of quite a few seconds, he responded firmly: "No. No, you're wrong. It was 1823." In the years since, I have come up with all manner of retorts—"Really? Well, I'd better call the publishers and get a couple of my books taken off the shelves and pulped"—but sadly, at the time, I could only slump sullenly in my seat.
Do "furriners" write American history differently than Americans do? Most certainly. To be sure, an increasingly high proportion of those who teach American history in non-American universities completed their graduate work at American universities. And nowadays, with the wonders of the Internet and cable television, someone living in Sydney or Perth can watch many of the same TV programs and sports events, and read the same online newspapers and the like, as a New Yorker.
For all of that, though, the experience of living in another society and working in another academic culture makes the historian more aware that what happened in America was not inevitable, and that there are many ways to interpret its history. The differences in perspective may be subtle, but they can prompt questions of hard-won primary sources (the logistical problems of writing American history from the other side of the globe should not be discounted) at variance from those asked by historians comfortably ensconced at Harvard or Yale.
In my own case, I have spent some three decades publishing work about black expressive culture, dance, music, clothing, hairstyles, ways of walking and talking, parades, and street life over about a century and a half of New York history. Influenced by work written outside the United States, notably that of a group of Australian ethnographic historians dubbed the "Melbourne Group," I have been drawn to the gritty details of the everyday life of ordinary black men and women—the stuff of culture all too often dismissed as mere ephemera.
The result, to my mind at least, has been work with a rather different emphasis than that published by other scholars also writing about New York's past. For me, the numbers game, played every day between the world wars by scores of thousands of black men and women in Harlem, is just as important as the doings of the NAACP. And to be honest, the numbers is a lot more interesting.
I write about New York from my office, located 10,000 miles away from the city itself. Occasionally, I am still patronized for that by American historians, who should know better, but this no longer worries me as it did when I was younger and such treatment was pervasive. Far from being defensive about my position as an outsider, I would not have it any other way. The idea of writing about the society in which I live never held any appeal for me. Perhaps it was merely that the grass was greener over the hill, but, regardless, I fell for New York City long before I saw it. Decades of reading novels and seeing films set in the metropolis had had their way with me, and New York was patently the most important and exciting city in the world. The reality, once I arrived, was even better.
The allure of the city has hardly waned over the years. Perhaps all those youthful hours misspent watching everything from Sweet Smell of Success to The Godfather movies determined the result, but some 30 years ago, and a few months into writing my Ph.D. thesis, I lucked into the issue that seems likely to preoccupy my entire academic career: "What did it mean to be a black person walking along a New York City street?" I'll never answer that question satisfactorily, but at least engaging with it is a relatively honest way to make a living. And really, who can complain about an existence in which I live for six to eight weeks a year on New York's Upper West Side and most of the rest of the time in Sydney?
There is, however, one time when distance from "where the action is" can be irksome, and that is when trying to publicize your work. My collaborators and I recently published a book, Playing the Numbers: Gambling in Harlem Between the Wars (Harvard University Press, 2010), and launched a Web site, Digital Harlem (http://acl.arts.usyd.edu.au/harlem/), and it is very difficult to get noticed from the other side of the globe. Perhaps the problem would be the same if we lived in Idaho, or even on 125th Street. Perhaps.
Shane White is a professor of American history and a research associate of the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.