There is an old expression: “To the victor go the spoils.”
Another famous quote denotes: “The victor will always be the judge, and the vanquished the accused.”
More succinctly: “History is written by the victors.”
Whereas this might be true when recalling events of world history concerning battles between warring nations, this reality could be applied to a nation’s domestic history as well. Often, when this does happen, there is a chilling effect – one that sanitizes the human decisions and flaws that were included in the meaningful strategies, policies, and actions that formed the fabric of a region or nation. For example, the concept of manifest destiny in America often ignores or condones the horrific realities of the Trail of Tears, the prejudice incurred by thousands of Chinese workers toiling on the transcontinental railroad, or the incidents of codified racism in the founding documents of several states. And yet, in many history courses throughout America’s elementary, middle, and high schools, these stories are often overlooked, understudied, or completely forgotten.
Seeking to tell these stories with a fuller, deeper narrative speaking to what made America the nation we are – warts and all – is not wrong. Taking “…an origin story…” that “…is not about history…it is about memory…(as) a work of journalism…” and casting that as a collection of historical facts, however, is.
The continued elevation and inclusion of The 1619 Project – a New York Times-driven endeavor that often inaccurately distorts key objectives and motives throughout American history – into the curriculum in cities such as Buffalo is a threat to the ongoing, ever-evolving knowledge of the richness of American history for future generations. Leveraging cultural pride to demand a more fulfilling recalling of our factual national story (e.g., exploring the deep duplicities on issues of equality by founding fathers such as Thomas Jefferson) is not wrong. Pushing past the taint of prejudice that is written into how we understand our history is, in fact, both necessary and honorable in the pursuit of a more perfect union. However, replacing one set of hand-crafted and imperfect narratives (e.g., the never-ending and false narrative of the nobility of the Southern sentiment that fueled the decades-long rift that culminated in the Civil War) with others (e.g., the false notion – one admitted to by the architect of The 1619 Project – that the American Revolution was fought with the key objective being to protect slavery, or denoting that “the Black Experience” in America began with the British in 1619, when in fact the initial slave-trading contracts for the colonies date back to the 1400s) is harmful, not empowering.
It is also dangerous in our contemporary times.
On its surface, one can appreciate the intent of a ground-breaking narrative that seeks to add depth to the historical reflections upon race in America, from our nation’s founding moments through its impact on our modern challenges. The 1776 Unites endeavor – led by Robert Woodson and supported by noted scholars including Pulitzer Prize winner Clarence Page and Hoover Institution Sr. Fellow Shelby Steele – offers a counterpoint that both challenges the lingering obstacles from racism but also pushes a narrative of patriotism to heal past the deep scars. Their greater point is shared by historians around the nation concerning the 1619 vs. 1776 debate: any narrative that seeks to prop-up false notions in the spirit of being “inclusive” can be counter-productive.
Too often, the best of intentions become hijacked by other motives and ideologies. From there, the “retelling of history” can become the spread of harmful propaganda.
For example, the need for healing the deep physical wounds and social resentments after the Civil War (a reality after such a bitter war), abandoned without guidance after the Compromise of 1877, led to the peddling of false narratives including the epic movie, “The Birth of a Nation”, beloved by Southern peasants and an American president alike. Contemporarily, we have seen shifts from initial intentions to political agendas. The rise of the Tea Party Movement a decade ago surged as an anti-establishment, smaller-government effort that railed against both political parties as irresponsible actors liable for the economic woes that rocked the nation during the Great Recession. That direction detoured, only to morph several times with many new messages and messengers over time – some with less-than-best aspects coming with the changes. A simple, common-sense notion – “Black lives matter” (i.e., Black lives matter just as much as all other lives do) – has become a movement promoting an agenda that seeks to “…disrupt the Western-prescribed nuclear family structure requirement…” (i.e., two-parent households) and other items that fortified African-Americans as they overcame painful experiences enduring slavery, Jim Crow, and the Civil Rights fights of the 20th century successfully. Sadly, it often becomes a similar narrative: the fight for a fuller telling of the interwoven struggles of interconnected people devolves from its original intent into initiatives with less-than-perfect altruism driving it – all with diminishing returns as a result.
Exploring the constant and ongoing battles of race relations and reconciliation within America is a noble endeavor, one that can help us discover pathways for homeostatic success today by studying the fullness of the complexity of our past. However, that fullness must also be of actual substance, not circumstantial evidence or feel-good “origin stories”. We cannot allow pride or prejudice from any persuasion to dissuade us from pursuing, crafting, and advancing a set of pragmatic solutions that teach us, heal us, unite us, and enrich us holistically. A full yet foundational and factual commonality binding us does that. Leaders of a modern America must be able to tell an encompassing biographical tale of 330 million strong, from immigrants from Canada and throughout the world to families with multi-generational roots in the United States. This tale of shared identity must infuse a pride in our commonality as Americans, even as we stare at the tasks of turmoil that we must wrestle with and resolve today.
Now, more than ever – during a pandemic, a contentious presidential campaign, heightened racial tensions, economic strife, and “unprecedented strain” between nations throughout the globe – America must unite under a common yet flawed identity in order to move through these ground-shaking times with our extolled freedoms, virtues, and goals intact. An honest evaluation, reclamation, and indemnity in the pursuits of justice, freedom, equality, and prosperity always came through leveraging America’s common story and values. They have lifted us over the troubled waters we faced both internationally and domestically over the decades. We must count on it again – in its rich and thorough truthfulness – to be our uplifting foundation again here in 2020.