Hy Berman, who died today at age 90, was part of a generation whose parents were factory workers, who gained access to college after WWll. Some — like Professor Berman — brought their working class lives into the academy, transforming our knowledge.
There was no such thing as labor history when Hy was a student. He was one of a tiny group who moved the U.S. history narrative beyond wars and Presidents in the early 60s. His students — many of whom gained access to college because of affirmative action — created African American and women’s history, Chicano and Asian American studies in the 70s and 80s. They, in turn, opened the door for Queer and disability studies in the 90s.
I have sweet memories of Hy’s labor history course. I can still remember how my brain felt, crackling with new ideas after each class. He said he studied labor history so he would not have to labor. As his TA, I laughed. There were times when we disagreed, when he chose not to speak out about labor issues on campus.
The academy today is a place of labor struggle like it was not when Hy’s tenure as a professor began in 1961. At the University of Minnesota, campaigns for labor rights and faculty representation are building currently. Administrative salaries have ballooned, staffs face salary freezes. Nationally, 75% of us who teach today, work as adjuncts for poverty wages, without the security Hy had.
In Professor Berman’s memory we need:
- Secure decent jobs for higher educators who, while not facing the conditions of miners, do, in fact, engage in important labor –especially if, like Hy, they commit to asking the questions that emancipate.
- Free college tuition and access that begins at preK, so that working class people, like Hy was, can advance our understanding of how the world did, does and could work.
- A blossoming of departments and hires that transform our knowledge of the non-elite experiences.
- Finally, in honor of Hy’s work as a public historian, let’s open ivory tower resources everywhere, to benefit the common good.
Telling people’s histories is an essential part of our struggle for an equitable sustainable future. Our current understanding of historical trauma deepens our responsibility to do as Hy did: ask new questions and tell non-elite stories. One of those stories is the tale of the young son of immigrant textile workers who went to college.
Your grateful student.