The United States is a nation in search of a usable past. How much of that project will be entrusted to politicians and how much to scholars remains to be seen, but righting the balance will determine whether our secondary school curricula inculcate a national mythology or impart a nuanced understanding of the past. The AHA and partner organizations like Learn from History are rightfully concerned that “divisive concepts” laws such as Texas’s HB 3979 seek to “replace evidence-based history instruction with a whitewashed version of patriotism” that stifles meaningful discussion of the centrality of racism in US history.
As an ideological endeavor, the promulgation of a national mythology serves the interests of those in power and does far more to entrench division than any honest, critical assessment of historical injustice ever could. But the search for a usable past can also be what the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs calls “an expression of communal aspiration,” one that “aims at creating a better world by incorporating achievements as well as regrets, pride as well as disappointment, into our historical accounts.” Resolving these apparent contradictions into a synthesis that better serves the needs of a pluralistic democracy is manifestly the work of historians.
I write this as a secondary school teacher who has watched uneasily as the culture wars playing out in school boards and statehouses nationwide foster a false dichotomy between 1619 and 1776 as “foundings” of the United States. For at least 50 years, scholars have embraced what Edmund Morgan termed “the central paradox of American history”: the rise of liberty in this country can be fully understood only alongside the rise of slavery. To insist, as the state of Texas does, that we teach our students to see slavery and racism as “deviations from, betrayals of, or failures to live up to, the authentic founding principles of the United States” is to reject what is, at this point, sound historical consensus. Morgan abjured the notion that we should see our founding as one thing and one thing only, an admonition that cuts both ways: even while he insisted “that one fifth of the American population at the time of the Revolution is too many people to be treated as an exception,” he cautioned against dismissing narratives of liberty and equality in favor of the argument “that slavery and oppression were the dominant features of American history.” It seems fair to read HB 3979’s prohibition against “requiring an understanding of the 1619 Project” as a sign that the activists behind such laws believe our teaching has swung too far in the latter direction. Implicit in this belief is a misguided assumption that because a teacher introduces a concept or thesis into a course, she obliges her students to accept it as a singular truth.
The 1619 Project—conceived by the journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones—inspired much-needed public discourse about the long reach of slavery and its pernicious legitimizing ideologies, popularizing a critical stance that I believe should inform our teaching. I hesitate, though, to characterize the arrival of the first unfree Africans in Point Comfort, Virginia, as a moment of original sin that ossified our nation’s character and fate. If we look back over the span of four hundred years, the forced migration of those 20 or so Angolans is surely a defining moment. But there is a rich, ongoing scholarly debate about the fluidity among categories of unfree labor during the 17th century.