Historical Hypochondria

I have begun to wonder if historians, or at least history students, don’t suffer from a similar problem to that experienced by medical students. Medical students often start to self-diagnose with various ailments during the course of their studies, especially when confronted with list after list of symptoms. They find themselves ticking off symptoms and suddenly thinking they have this or that strange disorder. (( But never lupus ))

Sometimes as I am reading about historical groups or events, I find myself thinking “Gee, that’s awfully similar to X or Y.” Occasionally these are happy similarites, but often they are not. This semester I’m taking a course on the South since 1865, with an emphasis on race and gender, which means I’m reading accounts of voter suppression and white supremacists’ efforts to control the public lives of women, white and black.

With everything in the news, it’s hard to read the following sentence “Southern white men were … determine to preserve traditional forms of racial patriarchy which allowed them complete control over black and white women’s sexuality” and not think of the birth control hearing in Congress or comments by various white male legislators about women’s bodies and sexualities. (( Crystal N. Feimster, Souther Horrors: Women and the Politics of Rape and Lynching (Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England: Harvard University Press, 2009), 52. ))  Debates on the Diane Rehm show and in the newspapers about voter id acts bring to mind accounts literacy tests, poll taxes, and various legal measures put in place in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century to limit the political rights of minorities, specifically African-Americans. Surely, I think to myself, I am overreacting.

But tonight I mentioned this thought to my sister, who pointed out to me that some medical students read the list of symptoms and successfully self-diagnose a melanoma or pertussis (whooping cough).

So perhaps I’m not a hypochondriac. Perhaps human nature is constant, both in its positives and negatives, or at least slow to change. Still, if the history books show the symptoms, perhaps they also provide hints for treatment and recovery.