America Curriculum History Race

Johann Neem — A Usable Past: Providing a Narrative to House the Facts of American History

This post is an essay by one of my favorite historians, Johann Neem, which appeared recently in Hedgehog Review.  Here’s a link to the original.

His topic is the critically important question of how we can create a shared narrative for the  American people — one that incorporates the bad parts without denying the good parts.  Now, with the US more divided than any time in recent memory, constructing such a shared narrative seems near impossible but all the more necessary.  

Today the intellectual left has created a version of the narrative, the 1619 Project, which stresses that racism is the basis for the American story, giving the lie to the words of the Declaration of Independence.  And the Trumpist right has created its own counter narrative, the 1776 Project, which erases race from the narrative altogether.   As an immigrant from India, Neem sees the possibility — and the desperate need — for constructing a narrative that can bridge this divide.  He ties his analysis together around the Jefferson Memorial and its meaning for the full range of Americans.  How can we put together a story of America that includes Jefferson the slaveowner and Jefferson the beacon of liberty?  The issue, he says, is not the facts but the framing of the story.   And what we need is a revised and shareable version of what Willliam McNeil calls “mythistory.”

For the most part, we are not really arguing about the facts. We are arguing about the narrative that houses the facts. All the contending conceptions of America share, or at least could share, most of the same facts.

One cannot have history without facts, but one cannot put facts together without a conception of history. The question is what kind of history do we want—and need—to have. The answer determines what we teach in our schools. In other words, we are arguing over what the historian William McNeill called “mythistory.”

“Facts,” McNeill wrote, do not “in and of themselves, give meaning or intelligibility to the record of the past…. To become a history, facts have to be put together into a pattern that is understandable and credible.” Even in the natural sciences, patterns are identified “by paying selective attention to the total input of stimuli.” Through this process of selection, societies create the “shared truths that provide a sanction for common effort.” Mythistory is not untrue; unlike myths, mythistory is grounded in the actual historical record. Mythistory is a careful balance—or tension—between society’s need for myth and history’s obligation to provide a true account of the past. It is essential that mythistory be tied to honest interpretations of the past because “myths may mislead disastrously.” Yet McNeill cautioned would-be truth tellers against upsetting the delicate balance between myth and history: “A corrosive version of history that emphasizes all the recurrent discrepancies between ideal and reality in any given group’s behavior makes it harder for members of the group in question to act cohesively and in good conscience.” 

Nonetheless, there is space for nuance and tension; “surer of their internal cohesion,” established groups “can afford to accept more subtly modulated portraits of their successes and failures in bringing practice into conformity with principles.”15

Neem points out that we were able to construct such a narrative in an earlier time of conflict over race.

It was our confidence in ourselves that enabled us Americans to weather earlier battles over the content of the history curriculum. Especially in the 1970s and ’80s, as historians focused on the experiences of previously underrepresented groups, they stressed the integrity of American mythistory, exposing parts of it as closer to myth than history. The story did not fracture; it proved flexible enough to accommodate new perspectives, and even contradictions. Despite intense disagreements over what our schools should teach, “most parties to the dispute reached a rough compromise: each racial and ethnic group could enter the story, provided that none of them questioned the story’s larger themes of freedom, equality, and opportunity,” historian Jonathan Zimmerman wrote in his 2002 book Whose America?16 Americans found a way to live, at times uncomfortably, within the same house.

Here’s his conclusion:

Today, large portions of the American public see each other as enemies. It is hard to agree on our history when we find each other so repugnant, even dangerous. I believe that most Americans want to save our old house, but a growing number—on both left and right—have concluded that it is a tear-down. Maybe I am naive to think that we can still make this house a home. The walls are sagging and the wires are exposed, but I still see a fixer-upper.

Like Johann Neem, I think that Thomas Jefferson is the key to constructing an inclusive American narrative.  All the contradictions of our country are embodied in him.  Not only was he a lifelong slaveowner, but his long-term mistress was both his slave and his wife’s half-sister (the daughter of a slave impregnated by his wife’s father).  It doesn’t get any creepier than that.  And unlike Washington, Jefferson didn’t free his slaves on death, because he was too much in debt from his indulgence in continually remodeling Monticello and drinking fine wines.  

At the same time, Jefferson was also history’s greatest rhetorician in the cause of individual liberty and the rights to self-rule, whose words have long inspired people around the world to break free from tyranny.  And he wasn’t all pretty words.  As a revolutionary leader, diplomat, and president, he played a critical role in gaining American freedom from Great Britain and in institutionalizing the core structures of the world’s first republican state.  

One of the ways I understand the contradictions within Jefferson and the other slaveholding founding fathers is that their passion for liberty was sharply enhanced by their own visceral personal understanding of what the absence of liberty meant in its most extreme form — American chattel slavery.  Perhaps no one appreciates freedom more than someone who enslaves others.  

Like Neem, I feel strongly that we can develop an inclusive and accurate historical narrative for the US that can accommodate all its contradictions while still honoring “the better angels of our nature.”

A Usable Past for a Post-American Nation

Arguing about the narrative that houses the facts.

Johann N. Neem

It was the evening before the Fourth of July in the last year of his tumultuous presidency, and I sat in front of my television transfixed and horrified as Donald Trump delivered a speech at Mount Rushmore, ostensibly a celebration of American independence but in fact a call for resistance. Against the dramatic backdrop of the four granite presidential faces and American flags, Trump promised that “the American people…will not allow our country, and all of its values, history, and culture, to be taken from them” by protestors and left-leaning scholars. He condemned so-called cancel culture for demanding absolute devotion to leftist dogma. Two months later, he would reprise that theme at the White House Conference on American History. “Whether it is the mob on the street, or the cancel culture in the boardroom,” Trump proclaimed, “the goal is the same…to bully Americans into abandoning their values, their heritage, and their very way of life.”1

On both occasions, the defiant words were disturbingly compelling. There was something primal about them: the tribal leader defending his tribe’s ground. That is why I felt so uncomfortable, even threatened. As a brown-skinned immigrant, I wondered whether I fit into Trump’s—or the crowd’s—America. Who was the “our” in “our country”? And besides, I thought, he had to be exaggerating. Who would want to take America’s values, history, and culture from us? Yet only three days after the Mount Rushmore speech, the New York Times published an op-ed calling for the removal of the Jefferson Memorial in Washington.2 Maybe Trump’s words could not be so easily dismissed. Maybe something deeper was happening.

Something deeper is happening. Somewhere along the line, an influential group of scholars and educators lost faith in America. They determined that the American project was inherently corrupt and possibly unsalvageable. To be sure, conflicts over American history are nothing new. They have been raging for decades. But there has been a shift in the last few years, and the stakes have been dramatically raised. Today, we are not debating how to tell America’s history but whether we need a new narrative that prepares the way for a post-American nation that will better serve our diverse population.3 A new nation requires a new history and a new founding myth. It also needs to find a new way to tell the story of the past 250 years.

At some point, the desire to offer a more complex and truthful picture of America’s past morphed into an unsparing iconoclasm. Fragments from the news and my own experiences confirm that change. A school district in New Jersey, I learned, had erased the names of all holidays from its calendar because too many of them were associated with racism. The first to receive this treatment was Columbus Day. But where would it stop? Every holiday could be associated with some kind of oppression. No more Thanksgiving? No more Presidents’ Day? Other school districts were making similar choices. An elementary school in Seattle canceled its Halloween parade because it allegedly marginalized students of color. San Francisco’s board of education approved a plan (eventually reversed) to rename schools honoring historical figures like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln on the grounds that they were racists.4

Then I read about the efforts around the country to tear down statues of Thomas Jefferson. The call to remove the Jefferson Memorial, it turns out, was not issued by some lone voice; it was part of a movement to get Jefferson out of our public places. In Portland, Oregon, activists took down statues of Jefferson and Washington. After the New York City Council voted to remove a statue of Jefferson from its chambers, where it had stood for over a century, Assemblyman Charles Barron was asked where the statue of the author of the Declaration of Independence might belong. His response: “I don’t think it should go anywhere. I don’t think it should exist…I think it should be put in storage or destroyed or whatever.” To Barron, Jefferson’s statue deserved the same fate as that of King George III, which stood in New York City’s Bowling Green Park until torn down during the American Revolution.5

Jefferson MemorialJefferson-Memorial2

According to this extreme revisionist—and what I call post-American—perspective, we need an entirely new accounting of the past, not because the history we currently teach is incomplete but because all of American history is a lie. As post-Americans see it, this nation was founded on racism and is defined by racism. It is not just that America has a long history of racism. It is that America exists for, and because of, racism. It is a country for white people. White supremacy is its defining feature. The story of America was “stamped from the beginning,” in historian and activist Ibram X. Kendi’s words.6

The post-American perspective does not simply provide a new interpretation of American history. The problem that it claims to address is not the kind that can be solved by adding greater complexity or a fuller picture of race-based exploitation to the story. At the base of its historiographical ambitions is a stunning assertion: For those who seek social justice, American history does not belong to them and they do not belong to it. There is, in short, no usable past. In that spirit, an Illinois state legislator called for “the abolishment of history classes” in the state’s public schools because the course materials “lead to white privilege and a racist society.”7

One can understand why some Americans have come to such a conclusion. After more than two centuries, racial equality is still far from achieved. Six decades after the civil rights movement, black Americans are still disproportionately left behind, impoverished, and incarcerated. Black Americans have been subjected to enslavement, plans for removal (colonization), Jim Crow segregation, and terrorist violence. All the talk about the city on a hill or all men being created equal can ring hollow to many of our fellow citizens. That’s why, in the minds of post-Americans, we must not merely understand the history of American racism, but overcome American history altogether.

This is the real significance of journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones’s widely read introductory essay to The 1619 Project. Hannah-Jones is not just revising American history or helping us understand African American history. She is offering a new founding narrative for post-America. The entire story of America must be retold. In Hannah-Jones’s history, America’s founding fathers fought for a nation defined not by equality and liberty but inequality and slavery. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison were not patriots but owners of “forced labor camps.”

Hannah-Jones rewrites a familiar plot to serve post-American needs. In the older story, colonists, after years of struggle, overthrew British tyranny. In Hannah-Jones’s narrative, black people play the part of the colonists, and whites become the tyrants. Not only were the latter guilty of genocide against indigenous people, they created a nation devoted to racial domination whose victims included Africans brought here forcibly and their descendants.

That black Americans have faced violence, oppression, and discrimination in our history goes without question. So is the fact that the efforts of black Americans to achieve equality and justice have expanded the meaning of American democracy. Yet Hannah-Jones is not situating black Americans’ struggles and stories within American history. Instead, she writes, “More than any other group in this country’s history, we have served, generation after generation, in an overlooked but vital role: It is we who have been the perfecters of this democracy.”8

In this interpretation, white people are not part of the story of American liberty. They are the problem. The story will end only when we are liberated from the regime that was established in 1776, a regime that imposed national form on an order created in 1619, when enslaved Africans were brought to Virginia. Post-American historians, therefore, will need to write new founding myths for a new nation.

The View from the Tidal Basin

I remember my earliest visits to the Jefferson Memorial, the first when I was in college in the 1990s, the second when I was working in Washington after graduating. The place felt like sacred ground. At night, other than the sound of the Tidal Basin waters lapping against the nearby seawall, it was preternaturally quiet: a temple to a man whose words and deeds had helped found a nation, whose idealism was premised on the simple but profound fact that every human being has dignity and is entitled to basic human rights.

Sitting there, I felt inspired to live up to those ideals. I knew that America had a long way to go, and I wanted to help it get there. I shared with Martin Luther King Jr., who now stands across the water from Jefferson, the belief that Jefferson and the founding generation had given all of us a promissory note. It was up to each of us as citizens to make good on it.

My American story began in some ways in 1976, when my parents and I arrived from India. But sitting there with Jefferson, I felt that my American story also began much earlier, when a band of patriots mustered the nerve to declare independence and proclaim to the world that all men are created equal and had a right to self-government. I was both a recent immigrant and part of an experiment that had begun over two centuries earlier.

Today, many Americans are angry with Jefferson because of his failings—his racism, his slaveholding, and his effort to rationalize both in his only book, Notes on the State of Virginia. Jefferson would not have been surprised. He did not believe that America could be a multiracial society. In Notes, he wrote, “Deep rooted prejudices entertained by the whites; ten thousand recollections, by the blacks, of the injuries they have sustained; new provocations; the real distinctions which nature has made; and many other circumstances, will divide us into parties, and produce convulsions which will probably never end but in the extermination of the one or the other race.” Opposed to slavery in principle, Jefferson believed that black Americans were justifiably angry about the “injuries” of the past. No wonder he felt despondent in his later years, writing in 1820, in response to the crisis that led to the Missouri Compromise, that “we have the wolf by the ears, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go.”

Jefferson’s words were prophetic. Today, we are witnessing the frightening rise of white nationalism. The FBI has concluded that white supremacists pose the biggest domestic terror threat to the United States today. And from the left, resentment and anger toward men like Jefferson, indeed, the history of America generally, drives the post-American movement. Jefferson anticipated white backlash, but he might have been surprised that post-Americanism, while multiracial, is predominantly a movement of white progressives.9 In response to post-Americanism, the right has unleashed its own resentment-fueled and defensive tribalism, to which Trump gave expression in his Mount Rushmore speech.

Perhaps there is no better way to rile up people than to tell them that their heroes are villains and the nation that their parents fought to preserve and that they expect to hand down to their children is based on lies. Yet the extreme right’s response has been alarming, giving voice to increasingly narrow visions of America. Many Republican politicians have responded with broadly worded legislation to ban the teaching of “divisive” ideas in schools and universities, an anti-intellectual campaign unworthy of a nation indebted to Jefferson. All of this has encouraged the xenophobia and racism of those Americans who agree with post-Americans that the United States is a white nation but who hope to keep it one. These ethnonationalists invoke replacement theory to accuse the left of using immigrants to displace white people and take over “their” country.10

While Trump fueled a crude nativism, the White House’s official position on American history offered reassuring patriotic bromides. In the final days of the Trump administration, the White House Conference on American History issued The 1776 Report, an intentional rebuttal of The 1619 Project. The authors of the report, the President’s Advisory 1776 Commission, were hostile to historical scholarship that emphasized racial distinctions and discrimination, whether it came from the post-American left or the reactionary American right. The commission argued that history classes should teach American students that the United States was founded on “fundamental truths of human liberty.” As depicted in The 1776 Report, the United States hovered above history like a Platonic form. Accordingly, nothing in America’s “missteps, errors, contradictions, and wrongs” could threaten “America’s principles,” which, the authors concluded, are “eternal: existing for all time.”11 Seeking to protect the purity of the American experiment from what happened in real life, the presidential commission was not so much making a historical argument as simply evading history.

Americans on Their History

Is there a way to tell an honest story about our past, one that squarely faces the history of race and exploitation without evasion? Most Americans think so. In contrast with the narrow understanding of American history offered by the post-Americans, on one hand, and reactionary nationalists, on the other, it is the belief of most Americans that the United States is a flawed but worthy nation. They want students to learn the truth about the past, but they do not see the truth as having a simple or single moral valence. There remains much in the past to inspire and evoke pride, as well as to engender shame or anger. A Public Religion Research Institute poll conducted last fall found that 84 percent of Americans agreed that in history classes we should learn about “our best achievements and our worst mistakes as a country.” That included 80 percent of Republicans, 86 percent of independents, and 90 percent of Democrats.12

While conservatives and liberals disagree over how much attention should be given to traditionally underrepresented groups, majorities in both parties (88 percent in each) consider teaching about other racial or ethnic groups as important as teaching about their own, according to a poll conducted by Fairleigh Dickinson University and the American Historical Association (AHA). A large majority of Americans—78 percent of Democrats and 74 percent of Republicans—agree that students should learn painful history, even if it makes them uncomfortable. As two commentators put it in the AHA’s magazine, Perspectives on History, “The clear call for more investigation of racial and ethnic subgroups, as well as the acceptance of teaching uncomfortable histories, undercuts putative justifications for recent legislative efforts to limit instruction on these topics.”

That conclusion is true, but only partially. While most Americans want schools to teach difficult topics about America’s past, few embrace the post-American perspective. Fifty-one percent of respondents to the AHA poll expressed the view that US schools provide about the right amount of attention to the founders, while 25 percent thought there should be more.13

One way to make sense of the competing historical narratives is to imagine America as an old house. To the post-American left, as well as to white nationalists, race is a load-bearing beam. Remove it, and the house will fall. Republicans are therefore not unreasonable when they claim that, from the post-American perspective, the house may need to come down to make way for new construction. Yet most Americans see race not as a load-bearing beam but as an interior wall that has kept us apart. The American house can be renovated. Interior walls can be removed without affecting the house’s structural integrity. Indeed, the old house was built on a strong foundation.

Competing Narratives

For the most part, we are not really arguing about the facts. We are arguing about the narrative that houses the facts. All the contending conceptions of America share, or at least could share, most of the same facts. This is not because facts don’t matter; we sometimes get facts wrong or distort them to fit them into our story. When that happens, professional historians have an obligation to correct the record, as some have already started to do for the post-American narrative.1414xFor examples, see David North and Thomas Mackaman, eds., The New York Times’ 1619 Project and the Racialist Falsification of History: Essays and Interviews (Oak Park, MI: Mehring, 2021); Holly Brewer, “Race and Enlightenment: The Story of a Slander,” Liberties 2, no. 1 (Autumn 2021), Leslie M. Harris, “I Helped Fact-Check the 1619 Project. The Times Ignored Me,” Politico, March 6, 2020; David Waldstreicher, “The Hidden Stakes of the 1619 Controversy,” Boston Review, January 23, 2020.The real problem arises in the organization of the facts. One cannot have history without facts, but one cannot put facts together without a conception of history. The question is what kind of history do we want—and need—to have. The answer determines what we teach in our schools. In other words, we are arguing over what the historian William McNeill called “mythistory.”

“Facts,” McNeill wrote, do not “in and of themselves, give meaning or intelligibility to the record of the past…. To become a history, facts have to be put together into a pattern that is understandable and credible.” Even in the natural sciences, patterns are identified “by paying selective attention to the total input of stimuli.” Through this process of selection, societies create the “shared truths that provide a sanction for common effort.” Mythistory is not untrue; unlike myths, mythistory is grounded in the actual historical record. Mythistory is a careful balance—or tension—between society’s need for myth and history’s obligation to provide a true account of the past. It is essential that mythistory be tied to honest interpretations of the past because “myths may mislead disastrously.” Yet McNeill cautioned would-be truth tellers against upsetting the delicate balance between myth and history: “A corrosive version of history that emphasizes all the recurrent discrepancies between ideal and reality in any given group’s behavior makes it harder for members of the group in question to act cohesively and in good conscience.” Nonetheless, there is space for nuance and tension; “surer of their internal cohesion,” established groups “can afford to accept more subtly modulated portraits of their successes and failures in bringing practice into conformity with principles.”15

It was our confidence in ourselves that enabled us Americans to weather earlier battles over the content of the history curriculum. Especially in the 1970s and ’80s, as historians focused on the experiences of previously underrepresented groups, they stressed the integrity of American mythistory, exposing parts of it as closer to myth than history. The story did not fracture; it proved flexible enough to accommodate new perspectives, and even contradictions. Despite intense disagreements over what our schools should teach, “most parties to the dispute reached a rough compromise: each racial and ethnic group could enter the story, provided that none of them questioned the story’s larger themes of freedom, equality, and opportunity,” historian Jonathan Zimmerman wrote in his 2002 book Whose America?16 Americans found a way to live, at times uncomfortably, within the same house.

We are living through a time, however, when we cannot take our shared identity—and therefore our shared stories—for granted. Given the urgent demands for social justice, this may be a moment when it is necessary to break myth rather than sustain it. That, at least, is what many post-Americans would argue. They claim that the mainstream American story hides more than it reveals. The existing narrative, in the lexicon of today, whitewashes America’s past. Instead, that past must be placed in a new pattern that will be the basis for a new mythistory, one that portrays the period from European settlement to today as primarily about white racism and oppression, and that imagines a post-American tomorrow liberated from that past. But like all mythistories, the post-American story picks and chooses which facts to emphasize and how to interpret them based on what, from its perspective, matters most.

I went back to the Jefferson Memorial last Christmas with my children. It was not the same. Washington is not the same. American democracy is not the same. I wanted to feel what I felt a quarter century ago. I wanted my children to experience what I had experienced. But I had to will feelings that once came naturally. After the January 6 storming of the Capitol, it has been harder to feel good about the nation that Jefferson helped found. The people who wanted to take their country back were not just responding to the former president’s lies about election fraud. Something deeper was happening.

Today, large portions of the American public see each other as enemies. It is hard to agree on our history when we find each other so repugnant, even dangerous. I believe that most Americans want to save our old house, but a growing number—on both left and right—have concluded that it is a tear-down. Maybe I am naive to think that we can still make this house a home. The walls are sagging and the wires are exposed, but I still see a fixer-upper. Post-Americans argue that racism is a load-bearing beam, and that it is time to remove it, even if we lose the structure. They call for new histories written by new historians. Maybe they are right. God knows we should have achieved racial equality by now. But if they are right, imposing a completely different story of the nation’s past will take a cultural revolution—it will require coercion and may even lead to violence. Are we ready for what might come after America?

Johann N. Neem is professor of history at Western Washington University. He is the author of What’s the Point of College? Seeking Purpose in an Age of Reform and Democracy’s Schools: The Rise of Public Education in America.

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