I want to talk about two pieces of writing that have appeared online in the last few days. Both focus on the role Thomas Jefferson should play in the way we imagine American history.
One article comes from a very thoughtful historian who wants U.S. history to have something to offer everyone in America. The other is a thinly veiled racist conspiracy theory.
I think talking about them together could be illuminating.
First, in the new issue of the Hedgehog Review, Johann Neem, a historian of education, expresses concern about what he calls “post-American” narratives of United States history. An immigrant from India, Neem discusses his fear that contemporary educators are being drawn to historical narratives denying that American heritage, in anything like its traditional form, can belong to everyone.
Another way of putting this, I suppose, is that Neem takes up the question of whether it’s still appropriate to teach the history—a single inclusive history, handed down from prior generations—of a united American nation. Perversely, Neem argues, some educators may be (accidentally) joining forces with white supremacists by claiming that America has only ever been, and thus can only be, a white nation.
Of all the shameful things about many recent political attacks on The 1619 Project—some of them, more shamefully still, orchestrated by a handful of white historians—is this: Directly contrary to what they claim, The 1619 Project is an explicitly, even militantly patriotic set of documents.
Don’t believe me? Let me quote at length from Nikole Hannah-Jones’s introductory essay, which is the text that most attacks focus on. These passages are crucial to her argument.
My dad always flew an American flag in our front yard. The blue paint on our two-story house was perennially chipping; the fence, or the rail by the stairs, or the front door, existed in a perpetual state of disrepair, but that flag always flew pristine. …
Dad hoped that if he served his country, his country might finally treat him as an American.
The Army did not end up being his way out. He was passed over for opportunities, his ambition stunted. He would be discharged under murky circumstances and then labor in a series of service jobs for the rest of his life. …
So when I was young, that flag outside our home never made sense to me. How could this black man, having seen firsthand the way his country abused black Americans, how it refused to treat us as full citizens, proudly fly its banner? I didn’t understand his patriotism. It deeply embarrassed me.
I had been taught, in school, through cultural osmosis, that the flag wasn’t really ours, that our history as a people began with enslavement and that we had contributed little to this great nation. It seemed that the closest thing black Americans could have to cultural pride was to be found in our vague connection to Africa, a place we had never been. That my dad felt so much honor in being an American felt like a marker of his degradation, his acceptance of our subordination.
Like most young people, I thought I understood so much, when in fact I understood so little. My father knew exactly what he was doing when he raised that flag. He knew that our people’s contributions to building the richest and most powerful nation in the world were indelible, that the United States simply would not exist without us. …
Yet despite being violently denied the freedom and justice promised to all, black Americans believed fervently in the American creed. Through centuries of black resistance and protest, we have helped the country live up to its founding ideals. And not only for ourselves — black rights struggles paved the way for every other rights struggle, including women’s and gay rights, immigrant and disability rights.
Without the idealistic, strenuous and patriotic efforts of black Americans, our democracy today would most likely look very different — it might not be a democracy at all. …
In every war this nation has waged since that first one, black Americans have fought — today we are the most likely of all racial groups to serve in the United States military.
My father, one of those many black Americans who answered the call, knew what it would take me years to understand …
I wish, now, that I could go back to the younger me and tell her that her people’s ancestry started here, on these lands, and to boldly, proudly, draw the stars and those stripes of the American flag.
We were told once, by virtue of our bondage, that we could never be American. But it was by virtue of our bondage that we became the most American of all.
That so many white Americans can read passages like these (or pretend they’ve read passages like these) and think they see an anti-American message, an attack on “patriotic history,” probably says a lot about the true nature of their so-called patriotism.