Read: How a history textbook would describe 2020 so far
Of course, this is hardly my first time living knowingly through “history.” As a historian of the nation’s founding, I’m always wide awake to modern insights. The events of 9/11, for example, gave me a new understanding of national vulnerability on the world stage. The new American republic was an infant among empires with the power to destroy it. As much as I had intellectually grasped that fact before, I now felt its consequences in a deep and cutting way.
My historical insights of today are more Cassandra-like. I sense the outlines of disaster—sometimes I see it plainly—but my words of warning often fall flat. Sometimes I myself don’t want to believe them.
This isn’t to say that I have no hope for what’s to come. I do. I know that times of unrest hold the potential for change—even dramatic change—that can right past injustices. I know that people with power won’t hold it forever, and that many repressive regimes destroy themselves by pushing too far too fast. I know the might of public opinion, and how politics from the ground up has countered power grabs time and again. We historians are connoisseurs of the promise inherent in change over time, as unsettling as such change can be.
I also know that before the United States can move ahead, it has to reckon with its past. It has to acknowledge the often profoundly deep roots of modern injustices, and recognize the long-standing assumptions and traditions that have made us who we are, for better and worse. America’s national identity is grounded in a shared understanding of American history—the country’s failures, successes, traditions, and ideals. Shape that narrative and you can shape a nation.
During times of intense change, that narrative has more power still. Thus the current outrage over the telling of our history. The United States is having a full-fledged identity crisis, and given the high stakes, the ownership of national history has become urgent and immediate. Culture war doesn’t begin to do this struggle justice. It is a battle for the soul of America and the survival of democracy, as many Americans know all too well.
This is not a battle of abstractions. It’s a deeply personal fight about inclusion and exclusion. We’re determining whose history counts and whose voices get heard, and reckoning with the many ways in which injustices—and ideals, met and unmet—have made us who we are. The fury of this debate grows from its implications. It’s an argument over what we want the United States to be.
Clint Smith: Taking my children to see Frederick Douglass
The current clash over commemorative statues brings that argument to life. From roughly 1890 to 1920, people erected statues of key Confederates, staking claims in public spaces and endorsing the Confederates’ defense of slavery in the process; more than anything else, these statues express the values of the people who erected them. In the 21st century, people are taking down the statues to revoke that endorsement. Statues are public tributes to ideas in human form; they’re not objective history. Their meaning goes far deeper than their surface.