Ira Berlin, a great historian of slavery, died a few days ago. The following tribute to him is by Patrick Rael, a former student of Berlin’s and no mean historian himself. It does honor to Berlin, to Patrick, and to the study of history, which is, as Malcolm X said, of all subjects the one most likely to reward our efforts. – N.I.
I never took a class with Ira Berlin. Nor did he advise me for any degree. I was a senior History major at Maryland (Tudor-Stuart England), and thinking about graduate school despite a somewhat checkered undergraduate record. At a department mixer on the 3rd floor of Francis Scott Key Hall, he popped out of the Freedmen and Southern Society Project offices — I suspected largely to grab some cheese cubes and crackers during a writing break — and struck up a conversation with an undergraduate he had never met. I came back to his office a few days later, and he told me about a new senior summer scholarship, and suggested I apply. I got the scholarship, and began working for Ira, Leslie Rowland, Stephen Miller, and that crew — doing the tedious but critical low-level work required for a large project.
Having largely avoided American history as “boring” (I was an idiot), I began to rediscover a history I had been exposed to repeatedly since elementary school. I learned two things: that it was ever contested, and that it still mattered. During the day, I scoured the record for biographical information on those who attended a remarkable convention of newly freed slaves in Charleston, South Carolina in 1865. By night, I worked on a biography of Benjamin Franklin Randolph, an antebellum free man of color who became active in South Carolina’s Reconstruction politics, only to be assassinated during the election season of 1868. I thought I had learned a lot.
Ira absolutely skewered my paper. It wasn’t that I had gotten Randolph wrong, it was that I had rushed the writing. He lathered red ink on the first dozen pages, then eased up, having made his point. “Good writing is in the verbs. Yours are deadly dull.” “Repetitious.” “Place time clauses first.” “No one reads block quotations.” “Don’t anticipate.” I felt crushed to have been critiqued so directly, but also honored that my work was being taken seriously enough to deserve it. I still have that manuscript, always on the ready should a student complain that I have been too hard on them.
Later, moving on to graduate school, I learned that Ira represented a long tradition of thinking about historical writing. He trained at Wisconsin, where he TA’d for a young Leon Litwack, who would become my graduate advisor at Berkeley. Both ascribed to William Hesseltine’s “Ten Commandments for Historical Writing,” which remains a strong foundation for history writers. He led a department of renowned, if sometimes now undersung, Americanists: Alison Olsen, David Grimsted, Elbert B. Smith, Jim Gilbert, and others. (I never knew, let alone appreciated, the riches at my disposal.)
I returned to the DC area as I began writing my dissertation. “Writing” is a liberal interpretation; “floundered” is more accurate. Once again, Ira was there, ready with advice. He pushed me to take on the conceptually big project I had envisioned, offering crucial support at a critical time, and didn’t permit me to sulk. He let me sit in on a few sessions of his graduate course. Though I rarely deserved it, he treated me as a colleague — always relaxed, always to the point, always constructive. As I grew, he praised some of my work and found some wanting, but never spared me what my writing deserved. He asked me to write an essay on emancipation for _Slavery in New York_, which inspired me to start thinking about how the first emancipation (1777-1827) was tied to the second (1861-1865). As I was finishing _Eighty-Eight Years_, I found out he was working on his own book on the topic (_The Long Emancipation_). When I offered some Milquetoast criticism of his manuscript, he wouldn’t permit such a thoughtless response; he insisted on real engagement.
He was a no bullshit guy, both in person and in scholarship. He was Miles Davis doing session work: not a lot of chit-chat, just getting to work and getting it done.
And what music he made. The first part of his career seemed dedicated to exploring the “edges” of the Old South slavery that consumed his generation (historians like Genovese, Gutman, and Blassingame). He produced the first full modern study of free African Americans in the antebellum South. He explored the Revolutionary origins of the sectional divide that sent the nation to war in 1861. And he illuminated the experience of emancipation that ended it. What other modern scholar of slavery could boast such detailed expertise and critical chops on both African slave-trading forts of the 16th century and recorded narratives of the last generation of African-descended people to have experienced slavery. At each point, he offered not just new and sound readings of the record, but ways of organizing our thinking. Ira was the master of the heuristic: slave societies versus societies without slaves, generations of captivity, Atlantic creoles.
The second part of his career consolidated these efforts in sweeping syntheses accessible to a broad public. In keeping with his fundamental commitment to democratic history and democratic society, Ira was ever seeking to package the past in ways everyone could understand, while sacrificing nothing in terms of nuance and sophistication. He exemplified the great age of post-war American historians, which nurtured a generation of incredibly sharp working-class lefties, New York intellectuals, social democrats, ethnic and religious minorities — who never doubted their capacity to create historical empathy with people that “regular” history had long passed by.
It was a powerful example to a curious but largely undisciplined kid from the suburbs — first generation, multiple drop-out, half-brown, state-schooled, suburban punk, and generic dude. He may never have known it, but Ira helped redeem me, setting me on a path to a useful adult life. The key principle he helped me learn was that ultimately nothing really matters but the work. Anyone can do history, and history is for everyone. I’m not a fan of the ways academics tout their lineages, for pedigrees are not credentials. But if there is a single scholar who has shaped me the most, it is Ira Berlin — not just his scholarship, but his style.
It’s a day for tears, but they’re not all sad. I mourn Ira’s passing but celebrate his accomplishments. The world will go on without him, but will always have what he left. Ira Berlin, god bless you, and may you rest in peace. I am honored to be a part of your legacy, and grateful for the degree to which I can live up to your example.