Historian’s Eye

“The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation:  the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.” —Barack Obama, Inaugural Address, January 20, 2009
Beginning as a modest effort in early 2009 to capture the historic moment of our first black president’s inauguration in photographs and interviews, the “Our Better History” project and the Historian’s Eye website have evolved into an expansive collection of some 3000+ photographs and an audio archive addressing Obama’s first term in office, the ’08 economic collapse and its fallout, two wars, the raucous politics of healthcare reform, the emergence of a new right-wing formation in opposition to Obama, the politics of immigration, Wall Street reform, street protests of every stripe, the BP oil spill, the escalation of anti-Muslim sentiment nationwide and the emergence of the Occupy Wall Street movement.  Interviewees narrate and reflect upon their own personal histories as well, a dimension of the archive that now spans many decades and touches five continents. Adopting its title from a passage in Obama’s inaugural address, the project seeks to trace the fate of “our better history,” as the nation faces unprecedented challenges with a president at the helm who is fully inspirational to some, palpably unnerving to others.  In addition to catching this moment like a firefly in a mason jar, the project seeks to encourage a new relationship to history itself—a mental habit of apprehending the past in the present and history-in-the-making. The geniuses whose inspiring ghosts hover most conspicuously over this project are Dorothea Lange and Studs Terkel.  The wonderful thing about a camera, Lange once said, is that it can teach you how to see without a camera.  One of the primary goals of this project is to learn to see anew and to enable clarity about our own historical moment.  As for Terkel, no one perhaps has ever assembled as significant an archive of American voices as he.  Though he is often thought of as preserving the experience of ordinary folks, in giving them a platform Terkel also provided access to a neglected realm of vernacular wisdom, analysis, theorizing, and understanding.  The present gallery of interviewees differs from Terkel’s, including federal judges and high-end hedge fund managers alongside the carpenters, union organizers, immigrants, and unemployed office workers with whom Terkel would have been more familiar.  But the aim is much the same:  to document the experience of sweeping historical forces at street level; to render the diversity of worldviews and outlooks; to give voice to a vernacular analysis and wisdom that outshines our “punditry” more often than we are ever encouraged to imagine. The momentum of our culture encourages very short memory and very quick judgment.  We take our public discourse mostly in sound bites, and hence things that predate the latest news cycle are most often crowded out of our consideration. Historian’s Eye asks you to slow down; to look and to listen; to pay close attention and to notice; to entertain a variety of perspectives; to ask varied questions; to think about the current moment as possessing a deep history, and also to think of it as itself historical—futurity’s history.  Above all, Historian’s Eye asks you to pitch in and to talk back.   self-portrait Matthew Frye Jacobson is professor of American Studies, History, and African American Studies at Yale and author of five books in the areas of immigration, race, empire, and US political culture. A bout with cancer in 2007 got him to thinking that there might be more to life—including intellectual life—than rushing to finish his sixth book. This website is one of the results.


Read and hear more about the process and pedagogy behind Historian's Eye in these interviews: • Interview in Design Observer, February 15, 2012 • Radio Interview on KRWG in Las Cruces, New Mexico, February 7, 2012 • Interview with Yale News, December 5, 2011 • Jacobson's lecture about Historian's Eye at Princeton, November 29, 2011 • Interview in Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture, Fall 2011 • Interview in Social Text, July 2011
  Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.


This project has benefited beyond measure from the advice, support, expertise, and kindness of countless friends, acquaintances, colleagues, and generous strangers.  My web-design and technical support team at Yale has been a dream to work with:  Pamela Patterson, Ken Panko, Alison Kanosky, and Barbara Rockenbach.  Thank you to the people at 3Play Media for their terrific work on the interview transcripts, and special thanks to Heather Vermeulen for her work in proofing and refining them. Renee Athay was an important inspiration, mentor, and co-conspirator in the early stages of this work.  My students and colleagues in American Studies and Public Humanities at Yale have provided crucial support, encouragement, and advice; I especially want to thank Monica Martinez, Ryan Brasseaux, Laura Wexler, Seth Fein, and Zareena Grewal.  George Chauncey gave me a priceless little push.  Josh Kun, Jack Tchen, Joe McNally, and Christopher Comerford have mentored me in important ways by their example.  Friends and fellow travelers across the country have lent an enormous hand with the logistics of the travel and fieldwork associated with the project:  Eleanor Byrne in Boston; Louise Newman in Gainesville, Florida; Dean Toji in Los Angeles; Peter Rachleff in Minneapolis/St. Paul; Daphne Brooks and Mark Krasovic in New Jersey; Don Hubbard, Jana Lipman, and Joel Dinerstein in New Orleans; the congregation of Da’at Elohim/TUJ in New York; Leah Perry in Washington, D.C.; William Weir in Seattle; Robin Burt, Fletcher Ward, and Pamela James Corwin in Olympia, Washington; Lynne Adrian and Eric Weisbard in Tuscaloosa, Alabama; Michael Cohen, Leigh Raiford, and Alaska Quilici in Berkeley, California; and A.J. Bauer and Robert Oxford in New York.  A very special thank you to everyone who consented to sit down with me for an interview, and to those willing to submit materials by flickr, Twitter, Xerox, fax, Facebook, and Audioboo.  This project has been partially funded by a John and Yvonne McCredie Fellowship in Instructional Technology.

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