In the most recent Writing History seminar, Nathan Connolly discussed how to narrate large social structures and processes through the tales of individual people. (His much-honored book, A World More Concrete, takes up this question by looking at real estate in Jim Crow Miami.) This is an enduring question for historians, particularly those trained in the politics and ideologies emerging from social history, history from the “bottom up,” the past of plumbers not presidents. How do we make structural forces, such as capitalism and racism, dynamic narratives? How do we engage readers with stories of these forces in lives instead of relying on concepts to do the action?
Connolly offered compelling testimony for the necessity of illustrating processes through people but also showed through example the challenges of doing so. One problem that remains: how to balance individual agency and cultural conditioning, particularly in the enflamed debate of African Americans’ lives under white supremacy. For instance: is complicity a useful interpretation? Connolly argued no. Instead, he sought out the people who were brokers in the system of white supremacy. These brokers – African American “slum” landlords in his Miami story, for example – reveal the ways interests and benefits converge among a variety of stakeholders. The story becomes less about blame and complicity and more about how white supremacy needs a particular African American agent and why this agent succeeds at that time. Connolly also recommended not to be swayed by majoritarian thinking, whether in numbers of an election or poll or on particular issue. As he rightly pointed out, it often does not take many voices to alter the political environment. Hence: the broker. These figures then open up the web of relationships necessary to maintaining various kinds of powers.
Look for brokers, narrate relationships: is there a better guide to writing history?