We Will Never Be What We Claim to Be Until We Face Who We Really Are

We Will Never Be What We Claim to Be Until We Face Who We Really Are August 22, 2019

Have you heard about the brouhaha over “The 1619 Project” from the New York Times? This week’s latest big deal has me a little worked up. I am a historian. I’ve taught U.S. history for 19 years. I’ve read a multitude of books on our history from every imaginable perspective and I’ve even written one. Before I type another word, let me assure you that I love my country. But like all countries, we have plenty of warts.  I try to acknowledge and own those warts. They are scars born of the struggle to rise to the top. They are evidence of the millions of people who were used, abused, and eliminated in that march to the top. There is one segment of our society that has been pushing to face those cold hard facts–to address those warts in order to start to finally heal them–and another segment that wants to sweep those facts under the rug of history–to try and hide the warts–and keep presenting a white-washed, mythological fairy tale that was used to indoctrinate the masses for a century.

Listen: If we continue to cling to the myth of a pious America then we will remain perpetually stuck in the rut of the deep-seated problems of our own creation. The moment we begin to face the truth about our nation is the moment we can begin to become who we’ve always said we were.

The New York Times has begun to publish a series of essays called “The 1619 Project.” A Times editor, Mary Gay, described the point of the series when she wrote:

“In the days and weeks to come, we will publish essays demonstrating that nearly everything that has made America exceptional grew out of slavery.”

That statement, undeniably true as it is, sent many in the conservative world into a feeding frenzy.

Newt Gingrich took to Twitter to attack Gay’s statement:

“This is simply a LIE. Pravda was never more dishonest than this effort to write a ‘left history.'”

This was conservative think-tanker, Ilya Shapiro’s, reaction:

“Writing about history is great, but a project intended to delegitimize mankind’s grandest experiment in human liberty & self-governance is divisive.”

And the writer, Jarrett Stepman, wrote that the project’s goal was:

“…to delegitimize American ideas and place race and slavery at the heart of literally everything this country is about (including things like healthcare). Racism and slavery were there at the time of the founding, but they aren’t what the country was founded on.”

In those three short reactionary statements, there is so much to deconstruct. And the deconstruction will reveal exactly what is wrong with the modern conservative mindset.

Let’s start with Newt. First of all, Newt, which part is a lie? Do you know about your history? What made America exceptional? Was it our  industrial beginnings which quickly exploded into the envy of the world? Well, if you know about our history, you’ll understand that the American Industrial Revolution began with the textile mills. It worked so well that people started inventing ways to make it work even better. One of those inventions was the Cotton Gin. That machine sped up the process of preparing cotton for the textile process so much that the demand for cotton skyrocketed. The North needed much more cotton, the South needed to produce more and more of it. That led to a great increase in slavery, which in turn led to a need for more land, which in turn led to Manifest Destiny, which in turn led to the war with Mexico, which forced the Mexican Cession from which the United States took Texas, California, and everything in between from Mexico. Just months later, gold was discovered in California which doubled the world’s known supply of gold. Are you beginning to see the picture. Newt? Telling this story isn’t “left history”, it’s just history. Telling the whole story doesn’t delegitimize America, it legitimizes the people who lost so much in order for America to rise to its dominant world status.

As for the other two gentlemen, Messers Shapiro and Stepman, it is apparent you two are confusing idealism with reality. It is true that America’s blueprint is a “grand experiment in human liberty and self-governance.” It is also true that while slavery and racism were “there at the time” (By the way, that sentence seems to imply that racism isn’t here now…surely you don’t think that, do you?) doesn’t mean they are “what the country was founded on.” Again, it comes down to idealism vs. reality. America, by and large, got it right on paper from the beginning (what we didn’t get right on paper, we eventually improved on paper), but it can’t be denied that we’ve never even come close to living up to our own written ideals. To say otherwise would be impossible since one’s head would have to be buried in the sand. The implication that America has gotten it right is an insult and a slap in the face to the descendants of slaves and Native Americans. It’s that willful ignorance that fuels so much of the bigotry and racism that we still deal with today. Admitting that we have warts and not trying to cover them would go a mighty long way towards legitimizing the millions of people that the American juggernaut has delegitimized throughout our history. That’s what the Times is attempting to do and that’s what you conservatives are so afraid of and are taking a stand against.

This same issue applies to the conservative Christian community, too. Too many Christians try to sweep history under the rug. The fact is, many horrible things have been done, and continue to be done, under the banner of Christianity. In 1619, when the first shipment of slaves from Africa arrived in the Jamestown, the main justification for it was that the “godless savages” from Africa would be converted to Christianity. Souls would be saved at the expense of abused bodies and minds. The same reasoning was applied to the treatment of Native Americans as westward expansion occurred. As Indians were being forced off their land, there were attempts made to convert them to Christianity. Those who converted were given the option to assimilate into American society–become like us, adopt our culture, or get out. After the Civil War finally brought an end to chattel slavery in America, Christianity was again bastardized and used as justification to terrorize the newly freed and enfranchised blacks. “Christians” wearing white hoods and burning crosses intimidated blacks from exercising their new rights and freedoms. They set up a segregated society and enforced it with Bibles in hand. This continued into modern times, of course. There are still millions of living black Americans who experienced this first hand. Those scars are not so old after all. And now, with the surreal presidency of Donald Trump, those wounds have been reopened. Terrible people, many under the banner of Christianity, are again terrorizing society’s marginalized. The conservative Christian Church seems to endorse it with their continuing support of the Trump presidency.

America was indeed founded on great principles. We are indeed a great experiment in human liberty. But experiments often fail. When they do, good scientists will try a different approach to get better results. The conservative mindset wants to use the same approach and just ignore the negative data.

In America, we say we are one thing, but we have never really been that thing. Until we recognize and own the negative data; until we face our warts and work to heal them; we will never move beyond them.

In short, we will never be who we claim to be until we face who we really are.


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