For Anti-Racist Educator, Teaching History Was a Calling

tags: education, African American history, historians

Erik Moshe is an HNN Features Editor.



Tobin Miller Shearer is the Director of the African-American Studies Program at the University of Montana and an Associate Professor of History. He conducts research into the history of race and religion in the United States with an emphasis on prayer, the civil rights movement, and white identity. 


What books are you reading now?


I just finished a week-long reading marathon while my partner was out of town. Of the eight books I plowed through in a week’s time, my three favorites were Laila Haidarali’s Brown Beauty: Color, Sex, and Race from the Harlem Renaissance to World War II (NYU Press: 2018); Tera Hunter’s Bound in Wedlock: Slave and Free Black Marriage in the Nineteenth Century (Belknap: 2019); and Mark Whitaker’s Smoketown: The Untold Story of the Other Great Black Renaissance (Simon & Schuster, 2018).


What is your favorite history book?


Albert J. Raboteau’s A Fire in the Bones: Reflections on African-American Religious History (Beacon Press, 1995). His lyrical prose, historical insight, and personal passion are stunning.


Why did you choose history as your career?


This is a second career for me. After working for fifteen years in the non-profit sector as an anti-racism educator and organizer, I realized that the thing I loved most was the occasional guest lecture I got to give when consulting with colleges and universities. Every time that I explored historical questions with groups of students, I left wanting more. That continues to be the case today.


What qualities do you need to be a historian?


A love of minutiae, a passion for reading, the mind of a detective, the imagination of a storyteller, and a commitment to making the past relevant to the present.


Who was your favorite history teacher?


One of my graduate school instructors, Nancy Maclean, demanded more of me as a writer than any other history teacher I’ve ever had. I often think of how she taught us to write when I am working with students today.


What is your most memorable or rewarding teaching experience?


A special topics course on the history of the White Supremacy movement. Even though (or perhaps because?) we held the class in an undisclosed location with police protection due to the death threats I received for teaching the class, the students were amazing. I learned as much as they did.


What are your hopes for history as a discipline?


That we as a guild would continue to find ways to be relevant and engaging to students who seek out a liberal arts education and to a broader public interested in connecting the present with the past.


Do you own any rare history or collectible books? Do you collect artifacts related to history?


I have an 1857 copy of The History of Slavery and the Slave Trade, Ancient and Modern, The Forms of Slavery That Prevailed in Ancient Nations, Particularly in Greece and Rome, The African Slave Trade and the Political History of Slavery in the United States, Complied from Authentic Materials by W. O. Blake that is every bit as ponderous and heavy as its title implies. The only thing that would fall into the historical artifact category is an original typeplate of hymn number 587 “O Send Thy Light” from one of the early Mennonite hymnals.


What have you found most rewarding and most frustrating about your career? 


Most rewarding: the daily balance of being able to spend several hours on my research (on a good day) and several hours engaging with students in and outside of the classroom. Most frustrating: negotiating the bureaucratic hoops that come with operating inside an institution of higher learning.


How has the study of history changed in the course of your career?


The biggest sea change has been in the realm of technological advances. Word processing, databases, and document digitization have revolutionized the craft and discipline of research and writing. The impact of post-modernism has been more mixed with important challenges being offered to the production of grand master narratives while those very challenges have made our ability to engage in public-facing historical work all that more difficult.


What is your favorite history-related saying? Have you come up with your own?


I like Marcus Garvey’s take for its simplicity: “A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.” In my African-American history survey class I sometimes make that observation that the most valuable history is often the most difficult to find; it is what we don’t even know that we need to know that gets us into trouble.


What are you doing next?


I am about three-quarters of my way through a new book – currently entitled Devout Demonstrators (Routledge – forthcoming) – that explores the role of religious resources in historical social change movements. I am studying four domestic and four international protest movements to better understand what has happened in the past when prayer, vestments, fasting, pilgrimage, and song became part of the arsenal of activists’ tactics.

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