If We Can’t Come to Grips with the Past, How Are We to Grapple with the Present?

If We Can’t Come to Grips with the Past, How Are We to Grapple with the Present? February 23, 2015

I can’t be the only one who noticed this article this past week:

Oklahoma Lawmakers Vote Overwhelmingly To Ban Advanced Placement U.S. History

An Oklahoma legislative committee overwhelmingly voted to ban Advanced Placement U.S. History class, persuaded by the argument that it only teaches students “what is bad about America.” Other lawmakers are seeking a court ruling that would effectively prohibit the teaching of all AP courses in public schools.

. . .

Efforts by conservative school board members in Colorado to make the Advanced Placement U.S. History course “more patriotic,” prompted a walk-out by students. Under the changes proposed in Colorado “students would only be taught lessons depicting American heritage in a positive light, and effectively ban any material that could lead to dissent.” In South Carolina conservatives asked the College Board to exclude any material with an “ideological bias,” including evolution. Similar efforts are underway in Georgia and North Carolina.

What is it that is so threatening about the idea that your country may not be perfect? What, even, is so threatening about the idea that your country has in the past committed acts of atrocity? Perhaps this is born of the idea that we cannot be loyal to our country if we believe it has any faults, past or present, and that such loyalty is critical. I object to this idea, both because I think being loyal to ideals is more important than being loyal to a government and because I don’t think loyalty has to entail either blind faith or unquestioning disobedience.

When I was a child, I was taught that I must obey my parents without question, hesitation, or complaint. A child who did not so obey was considered to be dishonoring her parents. As a parent myself, I have rejected this idea entirely. As I see it, no entity or person is worthy of unquestioning obedience. I encourage my children to ask questions and to contribute to family decisions. Unlike people who ascribe to my parents’ ideas about childrearing, I don’t see my children’s disagreement (or even disobedience) as a personal affront.

Perhaps it is because I don’t see either unquestioning obedience and or required agreement as healthy in the least that I find it difficult to get into the minds of those who oppose letting high school history classes teach the bad alongside the good. I mean for goodness sake, how do these people expect high school history teachers to teach slavery?! And besides, how do you think people will feel when they learn they’ve been lied to about their country’s history? I doubt there’s a quicker way to alienate people from their nation.

Unfortunately, this type of position is not limited to laypeople. Recently, Gordon Wood, a prominent historian of early America, wrote the following:

But a new generation of historians is no longer interested in how the United States came to be. That kind of narrative history of the nation, they say, is not only inherently triumphalist but has a teleological bias built into it. Those who write narrative histories necessarily have to choose and assign significance to events in terms of a known outcome, and that, the moral critics believe, is bound to glorify the nation. So instead of writing full-scale narrative histories, the new generation of historians has devoted itself to isolating and recovering stories of the dispossessed: the women kept in dependence; the American Indians shorn of their lands; the black slaves brought in chains from Africa. Consequently, much of their history is fragmentary and essentially anachronistic—condemning the past for not being more like the present. It has no real interest in the pastness of the past. 

. . .

These historians need to read and absorb Bailyn’s essay on “Context in History,” published in this collection for the first time. Perhaps then they would be less eager to judge the past by the values of the present and less keen to use history to solve our present problems. In some sense, of course, they are not really interested in the past as the past at all. “Their vision of the past turns them toward the future,” wrote Nietzsche of such activist historians; they “hope that justice will yet come and happiness is behind the mountain they are climbing. .  .  . They do not know how unhistorical their thought and actions are in spite of all their history.”

Not only does the history these moral reformers write invert the proportions of what happened in the past, but it is incapable of synthesizing the events of the past. It is inevitably partial, with little or no sense of the whole. If the insensitive treatment of women, American Indians, and African slaves is not made central to the story, then, for them, the story is too celebratory. Since these historians are not really interested in the origins of the nation, they have difficulty writing any coherent national narrative at all, one that would account for how the United States as a whole came into being.

Someone needs to remind Wood that women, African Americans, Native Americans, and other marginalized group made up over half the population during his period of study. I’m also not sure what Wood wants when he talks about not judging the past with the morals of the present. I’ve read my share of history, and the stories he refers to are generally told in a straightforward and factual way. Does not judging the past by the values of the present mean not arguing that slavery was wrong, or that the founding fathers were hypocritical in owning slaves while trumpeting the rhetoric of freedom and equality? I should hope not.

I’m deeply troubled by this idea that we need to bring back “great man” history. Such a history leaves those who look like me largely out of the picture. Women, after all, are skirted to the sidelines in such a history, restrained to sewing flags and raising presidents. I want a history where I can see myself, where my gender is not ignored, where the experiences of my female forebears are not erased.

This week, the New York Times ran an opinion piece by a black studies professor. The title? George Washington, Slave Catcher.

While Lincoln’s role in ending slavery is understood to have been more nuanced than his reputation as the great emancipator would suggest, it has taken longer for us to replace stories about cherry trees and false teeth with narratives about George Washington’s slaveholding.

. . .

During the president’s two terms in office, the Washingtons relocated first to New York and then to Philadelphia. Although slavery had steadily declined in the North, the Washingtons decided that they could not live without it. Once settled in Philadelphia, Washington encountered his first roadblock to slave ownership in the region — Pennsylvania’s Gradual Abolition Act of 1780.

. . . Under the law, any slave who entered Pennsylvania with an owner and lived in the state for longer than six months would be set free automatically. This presented a problem for the new president.

Washington developed a canny strategy that would protect his property and allow him to avoid public scrutiny. Every six months, the president’s slaves would travel back to Mount Vernon or would journey with Mrs. Washington outside the boundaries of the state. In essence, the Washingtons reset the clock. . . .

. . . In 1793, Washington signed the first fugitive slave law, which allowed fugitives to be seized in any state, tried and returned to their owners. . . .

. . . On a spring evening in May of 1796, though, Ona Judge, the Washingtons’ 22-year-old slave woman, slipped away from the president’s house in Philadelphia. At 15, she had joined the Washingtons on their tour of Northern living. She was among a small cohort of nine slaves who lived with the president and his family in Philadelphia. Judge was Martha Washington’s first attendant; she took care of Mrs. Washington’s personal needs.

What prompted Judge’s decision to bolt was Martha Washington’s plan to give Judge away as a wedding gift to her granddaughter. Judge fled Philadelphia for Portsmouth, N.H., a city with 360 free black people, and virtually no slaves. . . .

Washington and his agents pursued Judge for three years, dispatching friends, officials and relatives to find and recapture her. Twelve weeks before his death, Washington was still actively pursuing her, but with the help of close allies, Judge managed to elude his slave-catching grasp.

. . .

The conservatives in Oklahoma would bemoan the speaking of negative words about a national hero, and Gordon Wood might ask what this actually adds to the story of George Washington, and whether it was intended simply to bring him down. But I can’t for the life of me understand why we should protect the hagiography of a man who went to such lengths to preserve his ownership of human being as chattel.

Grappling with our past can help us better understand the problems that continue to plague our country in the present. Papering over our past and ignoring the wrongs that were perpetrated does the opposite. It prepares us to put on blinders and presume that all is well. That is unacceptable. A critical and deep look at our past promises to give us insight into our present. Indoctrination into a false patriotic narrative of our country’s past promises only to plant our heads firmly in the sand.

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