In commissioning this feature, editorial fellow Rachel Moss asked contributors: how can we radically re-imagine the writing of history? Over the next few weeks, our contributors reply with creative new methods, sources and forms that they are using to reshape what history writing can look like. In this instalment, Sarah Knott writes hastily, ahead of waking’s interruption, about being a historian who is always with child in one way or another.
‘Now That I am Forever With Child’ penned the black poet and activist Audre Lorde in a broadside of 1968. Maternity was a preoccupation, an ambivalence. ‘You never tire of hearing’, she addressed her daughter in a later volume, ‘how I crept out of my mother’s house / at dawn, with an olive suitcase’.
The sixth month of the pandemic slides on. Will I reflect on radical forms of history writing? Mother Is A Verb: An Unconventional History, published last year, played with voice and form. I am onto other research now, except I am not. Now I am forever with child, academic work collocated with caring for two children. We divvy time, my partner K and I. We separate desks, cleave out corners. But the new maths produce no room of one’s own.
When I think of radical writing about maternity, I think first of poets and essayists of the last half century. Lorde, her legs like ‘towers between which / A new world was passing’. Sharon Olds, bragging about birth. Adrienne Rich, fusing anger and tenderness. Jane Lazarre. Alice Walker. Cherrie Moraga. Patricia Hill Collins, coining ‘othermothering’. More recently, and right now: Jackie Kay. Asha Bandele. Rachel Feder. Imani Perry, addressing her black children, and naming the thinking still to be done. Alexis Pauline Gumbs, revolutionary mothering.
The list leans to American writers; it is the compilation of a British emigrant. The length testifies not only to a sturdy liberationist tradition but also to the compulsion to overcome a particular alternative. ‘Mustn’t grumble’ maternity was the mother’s house from which I had crept. This very English mode of mothering, of getting on with it, of making do and mending, was loving but unloquacious. It took a husband’s last name.
It makes sense that the poem and the essay – often by lesbians, often by women of colour – are the foundation of feminist commentary on maternity. These forms distill experience in tandem with breaking silences, finding voices, speaking out, filling voids. They return writers to their own bodies and de-essentialize care and identity. They crystallize theory and encourage further experiment. They grumble and find fresh language in the complaint.
Seeking to give a history to pregnancy, birth and the encounter with an infant – doing so in the midst of doing them – Mother Is A Verb borrowed the first-person voice from such poets and the essayists. Unleashed from omniscient narration and other conventional protocols, I let form follow the evidence of experience: my own, yes, but especially evidence from the British and North American past.
There was a narrative arc, from conception and miscarriage through to one child, a small and idiosyncratic account to hang things on. Anthropologists call such an arc ‘matrescence’: the process of becoming a mother; the changes accompanying the advent of maternity. An unfolding event with its own shape, if you like, always dependent on the contingencies of society and culture.
There was a set of working conditions that appeared in the text: being deprived of sleep, thankful for parental leave from my university, reading with an infant strapped to my front, continually interrupted. These interruptions disrupted the writing and gave the text its tempo. Contemporary theorist Lisa Baraitser, analyzing the here and now, casts the state of being continuously interrupted as mothering’s formative condition.
Most of all, there were the limited, piecemeal traces of maternal experience from the past: the shards of lives that appear in the interstices of plantation records, for example, or in passing anecdotes in oral histories, or the compact, revealing phrases of ‘Aunt’ and ‘Granny’, ‘yard babies’ and ‘knee babies’. Serialized as anecdote, bound into compressed accounts of experience, such materials built a lattice of historical variety.
The children are growing, asleep downstairs. I write, hastily, ahead of waking’s interruption, before the next ‘school day’ and ‘teaching day’ together at home. Short sentences, short paragraphs, land more quickly during this strange new pandemic dependence.
Some disciplines have their own terms for when a scholar writes themself into the text. ‘Autotheory’ among the feminist theorists. ‘Autoethnography’ among the anthropologists. I recall the writer Maggie Nelson, asked about such labelling on the stage of Queen Elizabeth Hall. She shrugs and suggests that ‘presencing’ is the apt term. The remark is so simple, and so correct, it almost embarrasses. Being present in your own text.
Among historians, there is no self-identifying canon of such scholarship. But there are many fine examples, going back at least as far as Carolyn Steedman’s Landscape for a Good Woman. It’s not that historians are conservative of form, though often we are, and more that we tend to foreground historical contribution over literary experiment. Barbara Taylor’s The Last Asylum illuminates a British history of mental illness and its treatment. Kendra Field’s Growing Up With the Country retells the story of westward migration after the American Civil War. We organize who we are by the ‘where and when’ that we work on.
Perhaps the point, in presencing, is a radical form of empathy, flowing between past and present, and between historian and reader. Presencing steps in and around the gap between past and present, pointing it out, pushing at how we know, and why we might care. Presencing dispenses with the distanced narrator, with their studious authority. Presencing is generous, and asks a reader to come along, too.
If so, presencing may lend itself particularly to raw materials that contain a difficulty of conditions. Mental distress, to take Taylor’s example. Or the slave trade, to add Saidiya Hartman’s Lose Your Mother. The materials can be dramatic and distressing, as these cases suggest, or they can be mundane. How else, I found in writing about care, to ask a reader to find interest in what is otherwise small and even dreary: the cloth of a nappy, the distinction between looking after an infant of four months or fourteen, the contrast between a cradle and a cradleboard.
And now. Historians are writing on the hoof, I notice, to bring the past usably into the present. Short essays interpret what’s happening as an ‘event’. Roger Chartier leans to Fernand Braudel’s conception of layered temporalities, where an event is the symptom of processes belonging to the longue durée. Better that, he writes, than the event as bewildering Foucauldian discontinuity, a rupture which destroys the before.
Rebecca Spang threads the needle between symptom and rupture by noting the living power of human action. The historian of the French Revolution observes that we, too, occupy revolutionary times. A historical event transforms the structures of everyday life, and people’s actions and reactions are determining, if in unexpected ways. People like us experience a historical event not as a singular thing, but rather as an extended period of crises in which the routines of ordinary life are dislocated and existing rituals lose their meaning. Such an event is unsettling, she writes. People inside them tend to crave stability. But such an event also unleashes creativity.
That historians have taken to the public airwaves to an unusual degree – Chartier and Spang, Leslie Harris and Karin Wulf, add your own to a growing list – seems to me a salutary dimension of this creativity. The creativity appears not just in content but in form. The short essay, sometimes collaborative, sometimes serialized, is having its hour. Spang pairs her reflections in The Atlantic, Grace Mallon is one among many who turn research into essay for the Washington Post’s ‘Made by History’ series, Heather Cox Richardson’s daily ‘Letter From An American’ serializes political history. The historian’s short essay traverses media and platforms.
The pressure of events has had a distinctive effect on historians who care for small children, or for dependent relatives, or for vulnerable mentees and fields. Now That I Am Forever With Child. For many caregivers, writing has simply halted, physically stopped in its tracks by the distraction and drag of immediate demands. By rights, this essay should stop here, trail off. Or it should name the many unwritten essays and half-written articles among all our circles.
But perhaps an essay on radical forms of history writing can find an alternate ending: to name the care manifestos proliferating across American universities as a new form of historical writing. These manifestos depend on historian’s narratives, composed in the here and now. That the historic whiteness and maleness of the university, its exclusion of and reliance on an array of female, brown and black caregivers, has been reinforced in recent decades by the decline of public funding and the neoliberal neglect of care.
On my campus, that an Office of Women’s Affairs shut. That two cooperative nurseries were closed. That here in the pandemic we need caregiving to be seen clearly enough to place it into policy and onto a budget line, and that not doing so falls especially heavily on the shoulders of BIPOC and women workers, in ways entirely predicted by the racialized and gendered history of care. Similar care manifestos proliferate across universities like Northwestern, Notre Dame, Oregon, and UCLA, each with their own local narrative, each ringing variations on a similar historical account.
A recent essay by Sarah Crook, in the pages of the Women’s History Review, reminds there is a history to such care manifestos among the radical writing about maternity with which I began. Crook quotes Adrienne Rich in 1971. Imagine a university, the poet invites, that could grapple with ‘the personal division, endless improvising, and creative holding back’ that attend ‘the attempt to combine the emotional and physical demands of parenthood and the challenges of work’.
Sarah Knott is Sally M. Reahard Professor of History at Indiana University, the author of Mother Is A Verb: An Unconventional History (2019) and a member of Indiana University’s Care Caucus. “Mothering’s Many Labors”, an essay collection co-edited with Emma Griffin, is forthcoming with Past and Present in November.