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Keri Leigh Merritt on the Politics of Grief and the Power of Historians' Witness to COVID

Dr. Keri Leigh Merritt is a historian, writer and activist based in Atlanta. She is the author of Masterless Men: Poor Whites and Slavery in the Antebellum South (Cambridge, 2017) and an organizer of The Civil War Documentary, "a forthcoming documentary made by a team of historians looking at the racial, class, gender, sexual, & cultural history of the war that remade millions of American lives and a new world" (follow it on Twitter).  She is also the co-editor, with Rhae Lynn Barnes and Yohuru Williams, of After Life: A Collective History of Loss and Redemption in Pandemic America (Haymarket, 2022). 

Dr. Merritt recently joined HNN editor Michan Connor by chat to discuss After Life, public engagement by historians, the role of history in making a humane society, and more. The conversation has been lightly edited for clarity. 

HNN: We're discussing the 2022 volume After Life which you edited with Rhae Lynn Barnes and Yohuru Williams. It's March 14 today, which is approximately three years to the day when the COVID pandemic started to get real for most Americans. It's when many of us started to realize that this virus was becoming a public health crisis, and it's also when, in hindsight, it became political, in terms of the distribution of risk, disruption and loss. I wanted to start with the way that you and your co-editor Rhae Lynn Barnes describe the inspiration for After Life coming from the work produced by the WPA Federal Writers project, which sent such an eclectic group of novelists, journalists and scholars to describe the state of America under the depression. In reading, I certainly saw some parallels, particularly in the way that many of the essays in After Life situate the experience of the pandemic in place, and the way that American places reflect so much of the divergence in risk and loss during the pandemic.

Can you talk a bit about how this framework came about, and how you and your collaborators saw it as a way to make sense of America under COVID?

Keri Leigh Merritt: As my co-editors and I were picking possible contributors to the book, we decided to ask some of our favorite writers and then give them carte blanche to write about whatever they wanted. So many historians and legal scholars have to write in a very formulaic way most of the time, so we gave them complete freedom to be as creative as they desired. We have Bancroft prize winners, Pulitzer Prize winners, Guggenheim award winners – amazing, passionate writers. But we also very much paid attention to diversity in this book, and not just from a cultural perspective but from a geographic perspective as well (thanks for noticing!). We didn't want it to just be big coastal elite cities with writers from all Ivy League schools. We thought this topic deserved to be told by a diverse array of people from different backgrounds, living in different parts of the country. That would be the only way this could be a truly “American” story.

HNN: That's absolutely true, and I was struck by that departure from the "formula" of historiographical writing. I think it's the case, too, that what many of the WPA writers explored was the history of places before the Depression, as well as their roots in those places, to make the Depression legible; some of the essays that you gathered weren't necessarily about COVID, but about how experience in place in some way paved the way for COVID. Robert Tsai, to give one example, wrote really compellingly about a hometown that he left, but his memories touched on the ways that the town sorted "winners" and "losers"—without hitting the reader over the head, he lets them make a connection about how a very unequal mass death event could be normalized. Was that kind of writing an original goal or a fortunate surprise?

To put it a different way, did you find the project changing when your authors actually were as creative as they desired?

Keri Leigh Merritt: Robert’s was one of my favorite essays! He beautifully describes the end stages of deindustrialization, as well as deaths of despair, in almost lyrical prose. And yes, that type of intensely personal essay was a fortunate surprise. When I say we gave contributors complete freedom, I mean it. What we got back was incredibly interesting. Some pieces are pretty historical (e.g. Martha Hodes and Gwendolyn Midlo Hall)—comparing the current period to eras from the past—but most of these are extremely personal, soul-baring essays (e.g. Robin D.G. Kelley and Yohuru Williams). Many of them are histories of the writer’s family, little micro-histories. Because our collective goal was to end on a note of optimism, instead of despair, it was fascinating to see how people went back to their own histories to shore up some kind of hope to survive this ordeal; to continue on.

HNN: Your answer takes me to a next question, which relates to the politics of After Life. And, as you noted, there are historical arguments like Hall's (connecting the white supremacist terrorism of the 1873 Colfax Massacre to the ways in which deaths go unmarked) or Tera Hunter's (on the "afterlife" of racialized ideas about contagion and the exploited labor needed to sustain a society in the midst of epidemics) that are explicitly about the broader political through-lines from past to present, and some that are much more about family and micro-histories. I want to come back to the second group later, but I'd want to note that After Life is a book that makes its commitments pretty clear: we can't understand how this pandemic affected America without understanding systemic inequality (racism especially). Peniel Joseph wrote in his essay that the convergence of the pandemic and George Floyd's murder in 2020 was a clarifying moment for Black Americans (and their allies) to demand change in the deficient relationship of the state to their lives. And now, by the standards set by new legislation, After Life would be taken out of school libraries in many states. How do you see the role of historical understanding in these real-life struggles?

Keri Leigh Merritt:  Well, I think historical understanding certainly provides insight into what’s going on writ large. Meaning that all the issues we tackle in the book: COVID, the rise of Donald Trump, and the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, etc., are all intertwined in the sense that the US government is not adequately rising to its basic obligations, as one of the richest nations in the history of the world, to provide fundamental human and civil rights to its citizens. There’s a direct correlation between elite control of our political system and the fact that our government continues to place profits before people, whether in health care, poverty programs, infrastructure, gun control, or even education.

To maintain their wealth, and thus, their power, the elite must continue to divide poor and working-class people – people with similar economic needs – by stoking the flames of racism, xenophobia, prejudice, and hate. They use the most punitive (so-called) “justice” system in the world to incarcerate the largest percentage of people in the world. They’ve denied basic universal healthcare to people during the deadliest time in our nation’s history, even under Democratic leadership. They are banning books and imposing censorship and firing librarians and educators. They are allowing mass shootings – mass murder – to occur multiple times a day. They’re expanding military-armed police forces, who brutalize and kill our loved ones with near impunity. They’ve closed hospitals during a pandemic, while building even more prisons.

We must deal with these issues in a revolutionary way, and soon. If we don’t, I fear what the future holds for America. Censorship and book banning have been recurrent themes throughout American history – but if history teaches us anything, we’ve got to fight this NOW, before they take things to the next level.   However, I want to emphasize again that I think knowledge and education are only part of the solution to our current problems. I think there are deeper emotional and psychological wounds that we must address, too – but that is a whole different book!

HNN: I think it's maybe a bit of a silly question to ask you, then (but I will anyway), where you stand on the recent controversy about "presentism" raised by the remarks of the former AHA president (and a recent New Yorker article)? I found Stephen Berry's phrasing in "Confederates Take the Capitol"—"Historians aren't antiquarians; we're not interested in old things because they are old. We exist to tell you when the engine of time throws a rod"—to be pretty evocative!

Keri Leigh Merritt: While a divide between what I call the “moral relativists” and “activist historians” has always existed within the profession, activist historians are suddenly starting to become involved in popular history and public scholarship in intense fashion. They are working to change the world, from Prison Reform to labor rights to immigration and racial justice issues. They're speaking to an American public who desperately and increasingly want to hear what they have to say.

Most activist historians, I would assume, believe there are certain immutable moral truths in this world. We believe that if we've been born 50 years ago or 500 years ago that we wouldn't harm or abuse other human beings. I have no qualms at all and stating clearly for the record: I do believe there are certain moral truths that are timeless.

If I’m going to be completely honest, I don’t think James Sweet’s AHA comments have anything to do with presentism. Instead, they have everything to do with old white men losing their monopolistic power over the profession. The last part of this is just simple professional jealousy. The moral relativists don’t like the fact that some younger scholars have been able to reach a broad public audience, primarily through social media. The moral relativists cannot stand the fact that some activist historians have also figured out how to monetize their work. To me, it’s all about democratizing knowledge. We are historians – the AHA is an organization for historians, not college professors – and our job is to educate the American people about history. To do this effectively, we must meet people where they are, and that increasingly means a tweet or TikTok video, not a book. Change is coming. And as always, the people in power don’t like change.

HNN: Thanks for that discussion – I think the question of meeting people where they are is increasingly urgent, and a project like After Life is a great example of that. It's noteworthy, too, of course, that the historians interviewed in that New Yorker piece were drawn from some pretty elite positions inside academe, which, as we know, is not where the people called historians are likely to be! And despite the attention given to student activists at the Ivies or Oberlin or wherever, it's not, as you say, where the people who want to hear what historians can tell them are, either.

HNN: That leads me to a last big question, and a return to talk about that category of essays in the book about the personal, the familial, and the emotional. There's another big professional (or at least professorial) norm that this book pushes back against, which is detachment. Readers are going to find scholars talking about their own confusion, fear, grief, or shame. You referred earlier to ending the volume on a tone of hope, but some of these stories, including your own, are painful and harrowing. What's the path to hope?

Keri Leigh Merritt: I think what's so comforting about the personal stories is that we fully recognize that other human beings have gone through similar types of losses and have still been able to survive, even thrive. Stories – narratives – are so incredibly powerful. It's in this way that we find strength and hope from our forefathers and foremothers. The extreme painfulness of some these stories (including mine!) also shows just how much we can endure, and I think there is some comfort in realizing that no matter how bad things get, we are not alone in our suffering.

Every living being suffers. We are one of many – and that makes us feel a sense of connection to others.

One of the main things I worry about is the isolation of people during the pandemic, continuing through today. Even the most introverted people are social creatures, who need companionship, love, human touch. The pandemic changed all of those things, irreparably. But until we actually have government or mainstream media acknowledge the immense loss this county has endured, we will never be able to emotionally and psychologically deal with our collective grief.

Back to your question, though: When I give book talks I am often asked by people how I hold on to hope, especially now as it seems the Black Lives Matter momentum has died down some. I say I find hope in two things right now. The first is the labor movement, all of the amazing pockets of labor power across the country where workers are really fighting back against huge, incredibly rich, powerful corporations. And they’re often winning! The other place I find hope is in the incredible young people of this country. They're the ones literally putting their lives on the line to fight for both human and climate justice. Young white people today are more involved in civil rights protests than they have ever been at any other time in American history.

Finally, I remind people that civil rights movements take a very long time, often decades. There are years that are filled with passionate protests, and there are years that are calmer, meant for reflection and care-taking and grassroots organizing. We may be in a calm period right now, but we should use this time to take care of ourselves – really work on self-care as we try to heal from the ravages of COVID and the last three years. We must get ourselves reestablished and reacquainted with our communities, and start building things from the ground up. We have to stop focusing on ourselves, getting lost in our own heads, in our own egos, turning our attention inwards; instead, we must focus on the external world and what we can do for people around us – what we can do to help others. I believe this is the basis of how hope is created and sustained.

HNN: That upsurge in labor organizing, as well as the activism of youth, is a cause for some optimism. And, while I can't do justice to the individual stories in this collection, I think Mary Dudziak's meditation on grief and remembrance clarifying political priorities, and Rhae Lynn Barnes's story – which rethinks the open road in that context of isolation and even suspicion of our fellow people—deserve some note on that theme. I think that HNN's readers will draw something important from this book.

I think it's particularly important, too, in light of the fact that the Biden administration intends to end the COVID emergency in May. The contraction of Medicaid is going to relegate too many people to being uninsured. It's going to be the end of free testing kits, and more "you're on your own" policy. We're going to need to be on our own together, right?

Keri Leigh Merritt: Unfortunately, yes. In one of the richest countries in the world, we are still left alone in this “DIY pandemic,” as we call it in the book. As Yohuru Williams and I write in the conclusion, “Our call to action in these borrowed years—in this after life—is quite clear: the path forward is one of uplift and radical hope. Stop being paralyzed by fear and anxiety; start being motivated by hope and passion. Stop feeling all alone within the current crisis; start connecting and organizing. Stop allowing other people and events to dictate a reaction; start being the action itself. Stop resisting; start creating. We have been given the incredible gift of life; we have survived one of the deadliest pandemics in history, and in so doing, we have realized the vast importance of every single moment we have on this earth. We have been given an after life. Use that after life to create the present you desire, and the future of your American dreams.”