While Martin Luther King, Jr.’s name is most often attached to his famous “I Have a Dream” speech in history books, just before his assassination his fight for economic equality for black Americans was gaining steam; he spoke at a demonstration by sanitation workers in March 1968. (Photo: Recuerdos de Pandora/Flickr/cc)
Historians, like journalists, are in the business of manipulating facts. Some use facts to tell truths, however unpleasant. But many more omit, highlight and at times distort them in ways that sustain national myths and buttress dominant narratives. The failure by most of the United States’ popular historians and the press to tell stories of oppression and the struggles against it, especially by women, people of color, the working class and the poor, has contributed to the triumphalism and chauvinism that are poisoning our society. The historian James W. Loewen, in his book Lies Across America: What Our Historic Markers and Monuments Get Wrong, calls the monuments that celebrate our highly selective and distorted history a “landscape of denial.”
The historian Carl Becker wrote, “History is what the present chooses to remember about the past.” And as a nation founded on the pillars of genocide, slavery, patriarchy, violent repression of popular movements, savage war crimes committed to expand the empire, and capitalist exploitation, we choose to remember very little. This historical amnesia, as James Baldwin never tired of pointing out, is very dangerous. It feeds self-delusion. It severs us from recognition of our propensity for violence. It sees us project on others—almost always the vulnerable—the unacknowledged evil that lies in our past and our hearts. It shuts down the voices of the oppressed, those who can tell us who we are and enable us through self-reflection and self-criticism to become a better people. “History does not merely refer to the past … history is literally present in all we do,” Baldwin wrote.
If we understood our real past we would see as lunacy Donald Trump’s bombastic assertions that the removal of Confederate statues is an attack on “our history.” Whose history is being attacked? And is it history that is being attacked or the myth disguised as history and perpetuated by white supremacy and capitalism? As the historian Eric Foner points out, “Public monuments are built by those with sufficient power to determine which parts of history are worth commemorating and what vision of history ought to be conveyed.”
The clash between historical myth and historical reality is being played out in the president’s disparaging of black athletes who protest indiscriminate police violence against people of color. “Maybe he should find a country that works better for him,” candidate Trump said of professional quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who knelt during the national anthem at National Football League games to protest police violence. Other NFL players later emulated his protest.
Friday at a political rally in Alabama, Trump bellowed: “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He’s fired. He’s fired!'” That comment and a Saturday morning tweet by Trump that criticized professional basketball star Stephen Curry, another athlete of African-American descent, prompted a number of prominent sports figures to respond angrily. One addressed the president as “U bum” on Twitter.
The war of words between the president and black athletes is about competing historical narratives.
Historians are rewarded for buttressing the ruling social structure, producing heavy tomes on the ruling elites—usually powerful white men such as John D. Rockefeller or Theodore Roosevelt—and ignoring the underlying social movements and radicals that have been the true engines of cultural and political change in the United States. Or they retreat into arcane and irrelevant subjects of minor significance, becoming self-appointed specialists of the banal or the trivial. They ignore or minimize inconvenient facts and actions that tarnish the myth, including lethal suppression of groups, classes and civilizations and the plethora of lies told by the ruling elites, the mass media and powerful institutions to justify their grip on power. They eschew transcendental and moral issues, including class conflict, in the name of neutrality and objectivity. The mantra of disinterested scholarship and the obsession with data collection add up, as the historian Howard Zinn wrote, “to the fear that using our intelligence to further our moral ends is somehow improper.”
“Objectivity is an interesting and often misunderstood word,” Foner said. “I tell my students what objectivity means is you have an open mind, not an empty mind. There is no person who doesn’t have preconceptions, values, assumptions. And you bring those to the study of history. What it means to be objective is if you begin encountering evidence, research, that questions some of your assumptions, you may have to change your mind. You have to have an open mind in your encounters with the evidence. But that doesn’t mean you don’t take a stance. You have an obligation. If you’ve done all this studying, done all this research, if you understand key issues in American history better than most people, just because you’ve done the research and they haven’t, you have an obligation as a citizen to speak up about it. …We should not be bystanders. We should be active citizens. Being a historian and an active citizen is not mutually contradictory.”
Historians who apologize for the power elites, who in essence shun complexity and minimize inconvenient truths, are rewarded and promoted. They receive tenure, large book contracts, generous research grants, lucrative speaking engagements and prizes. Truth tellers, such as Zinn, are marginalized. Friedrich Nietzsche calls this process “creative forgetfulness.”
“In high school,” Foner said, “I got a history textbook that said ‘Story of American History,’ which was very one-dimensional. It was all about the rise of freedom and liberty. Slavery was omitted almost entirely. The general plight of African-Americans and other non-whites was pretty much omitted from this story. It was very partial. It was very limited. That[s the same thing with all these statues and [the debate about them]. I’m not saying we should tear down every single statue of every Confederate all over the place. But if we step back and look at the public presentation of history, particularly in the South, through these monuments, where are the black people of the South? Where are the monuments to the victims of slavery? To the victims of lynching? The monuments of the black leaders of Reconstruction? The first black senators and members of Congress? My view is, as well as taking down some statues, we need to put up others. If we want to have a public commemoration of history, it ought to be diverse enough to include the whole history, not just the history that those in power want us to remember.”
“Civil War monuments glorify soldiers and generals who fought for Southern independence,” Foner writes in “Battles for Freedom: The Use and Abuse of American History,” “explaining their motivation by reference to the ideals of freedom, states’ rights and individual autonomy—everything, that is but slavery, the ‘cornerstone of the Confederacy,’ according to its vice president, Alexander Stephens. Fort Mill, South Carolina, has a marker honoring the ‘faithful slaves’ of the Confederate states, but one would be hard pressed to find monuments anywhere in the country to slave rebels like Denmark Vesey and Nat Turner, to the 200,000 black soldiers and sailors who fought for the Union (or, for that matter, the thousands of white Southerners who remained loyal to the nation).”
The United Daughters of the Confederacy, as Loewen points out, erected most of the South’s Confederate monuments between 1890 and 1920. This campaign of commemoration was part of what Foner calls “a conscious effort to glorify and sanitize the Confederate cause and legitimize the newly installed Jim Crow system.”
Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, who Loewen writes was “one of the most vicious racists in American history,” was one of the South’s biggest slave traders, commander of the forces that massacred black Union troops after they surrendered at Fort Pillow and the founder of the Ku Klux Klan. Yet, as Foner notes, “there are more statues, markers and busts of Forrest in Tennessee than of any other figure in the state’s history, including President Andrew Jackson.”
“Only one transgression was sufficiently outrageous to disqualify Confederate leaders from the pantheon of heroes,” Foner writes. “No statue of James Longstreet, a far abler commander than Forrest, graces the Southern countryside, and Gen. James Fleming Fagan is omitted from the portrait gallery of famous figures of Arkansas history in Little Rock. Their crime? Both supported black rights during Reconstruction.”
The American myth also relies heavily on a distorted history of the westward expansion.
“The mythology of the West is deeply rooted in our culture,” Foner said, “whether it’s in Western movies or the idea of the lone pioneer, the individual roughing it out in the West, and of course, the main lie is that the West was kind of empty before white settlers and hunters and trappers and farmers came from the East to settle it. In fact, the West has been populated since forever. The real story of the West is the clash of all these different peoples, Native Americans, Asians in California, settlers coming in from the East, Mexicans. The West was a very multicultural place. There are a lot of histories there. Many of those histories are ignored or subordinated in this one story of the westward movement.”
“Racism is certainly a part of Western history,” Foner said. “But you’re not going to get that from a John Wayne movie [or] the paintings by [Frederic] Remington and others. It’’ a history that doesn’t help you understand the present.”
Remington’s racism, displayed in paintings of noble white settlers and cowboys battling “savages,” was pronounced. “Jews—inguns—chinamen—Italians—Huns,” he wrote, were “the rubbish of the earth I hate.” In the same letter he added, “I’ve got some Winchesters and when the massacreing begins … I can get my share of ’em and whats more I will.”
Nietzsche identified three approaches to history: monumental, antiquarian and critical, the last being “the history that judges and condemns.”
“The monumental is the history that glorifies the nation-state that is represented in monuments that do not question anything about the society,” Foner said. “A lot of history is like that. The rise of history as a discipline coincided with the rise of the nation-state. Every nation needs a set of myths to justify its own existence. Another one of my favorite writers, Ernest Renan, the French historian, wrote, ‘The historian is the enemy of the nation.‘ It’s an interesting thing to say. He doesn’t mean they’re spies or anything. The historian comes along and takes apart the mythologies that are helping to underpin the legitimacy of the nation. That’s why people don’t like them very often. They don’t want to hear these things. Antiquarian is what a lot of people are. That’s fine. They’re looking for their personal roots, their family history. They’re going on ancestry.com to find out where their DNA came from. That’s not really history exactly. They don’t have much of a historical context. But it stimulates people to think about the past. Then there’s what Nietzsche calls critical history—the history that judges and condemns. It takes a moral stance. It doesn’t just relate the facts. It tells you what is good and what is evil. A lot of historians don’t like to do that. But to me, it’s important. It’s important for the historian, having done the research, having presented the history, to say here’s where I stand in relation to all these important issues in our history.”
“Whether it’s Frederick Douglass, Eugene Debs, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Martin Luther King Jr., those are the people who were trying to make America a better place,” Foner said. “King, in particular, was a very radical guy.”
Yet, as Foner points out, King is effectively “frozen in one speech, one sentence: I want my children to be judged by the content of their character, not just the color of their skin. [But] that’s not what the whole civil rights movement was about. People forget, he died leading a poor people’s march, leading a strike of sanitation workers. He wasn’t just out there talking about civil rights. He had moved to economic equality as a fundamental issue.”
Max Weber wrote, “What is possible would never have been achieved if, in this world, people had not repeatedly reached for the impossible.”
Foner, like Weber, argues that it is the visionaries and utopian reformers such as Debs and the abolitionists who brought about real social change, not the “practical” politicians. The abolitionists destroyed what Foner calls the “conspiracy of silence by which political parties, churches and other institutions sought to exclude slavery from public debate.” He writes:
For much of the 1850s and the first two years of the Civil War, Lincoln—widely considered the model of a pragmatic politician—advocated a plan to end slavery that involved gradual emancipation, monetary compensation for slaver owners, and setting up colonies of freed blacks outside the United States. The harebrained scheme had no possibility of enactment. It was the abolitionists, still viewed by some historians as irresponsible fanatics, who put forward the program—an immediate and uncompensated end to slavery, with black people becoming US citizens—that came to pass (with Lincoln’s eventual help, of course).
The political squabbles that dominate public discourse almost never question the sanctity of private property, individualism, capitalism or imperialism. They hold as sacrosanct American “virtues.” They insist that Americans are a “good” people steadily overcoming any prejudices and injustices that may have occurred in the past. The debates between the Democrats and the Whigs, or today’s Republicans and Democrats, have roots in the same allegiance to the dominant structures of power, myth of American exceptionalism and white supremacy.
“It’s all a family quarrel without any genuine, serious disagreements,” Foner said.
Those who challenge these structures, who reach for the impossible, who dare to speak the truth, have been, throughout American history, dismissed as “fanatics.” But, as Foner points out, it is often the “fanatics” who make history.