Rewriting the Narrative of U.S. History

Our only duty to history is to rewrite it, as Oscar Wilde quipped.

June 25, 2020

If, as Oscar Wilde jested, “our only duty to history is to rewrite it,” this is certainly the time to radically rethink the narrative of this country’s collective past.

Far from a collection of incontrovertible facts, history -- whether academic or popular -- necessarily involves implicit and explicit decisions about focus, emphasis, inclusion and exclusion, tone, and interpretation.

Each generation rewrites the past to meet its own needs. As the United States evolved into a more multicultural society, the limitations of earlier, complacent and nationalistic historical narratives became flagrantly self-evident. The romanticizing of the Civil War; the downplaying of Indian removal, slavery and Jim Crow; and the nostalgia-laced sentimentalizing of immigration, evading the realities of nativism and ethnocentrism, could no longer withstand close scrutiny even in popular culture.

Right now, as the controversy over The New York Times1619 Project makes abundantly clear, our society is struggling to create a historical narrative that speaks to our time and that can be widely embraced. Three versions stand out.

The first is a liberal interpretation, which should not be confused with earlier liberal interpretations that, in retrospect, look like rationalizations for the imperial presidency, recurrent interventions in foreign countries, the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the United States’ stance during the Cold War.

The more recent liberal interpretations view progress as necessarily a gradual, complex process that requires skilled political leadership that can navigate messy complexities within a highly partisan political system, the marshaling of broad popular support, protests from below and organized advocates of reform. Progress invariably involves conflict and must overcome deep-seated prejudices, public apathy, entrenched interests with a vested stake in the status quo.

The heroes in this story are the visionaries, reformers and writers who identify societal problems, and the political figures who ultimately translate public outrage into practical policies.

But, not surprisingly, this interpretation arouses little passion among students or the general public, apart from those readers who devour mega-biographies of the Founders. (And notably, it has not sparked a fully-formed conservative alternative, which largely consists of naysaying and skepticism about the effectiveness of liberal social programs.)

The second version of our national story, which gained great deal of traction following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and reached the Broadway stage in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, celebrates multiculturalism. It shares the liberal interpretation’s embrace of the nation’s founding propositions -- liberty and equality -- and suggests that the country has finally reached a turning point in its willingness to live up to those ideals and to decisively address racism, discrimination and gross disparities in income, wealth, health, education and policing, and extend a sense of belonging and ownership to all Americans, irrespective of their race, gender, ethnicity, immigration status or sexuality.

Of course, even as this pluralistic version of the American story speaks to a basic truth -- that from its inception, this society’s defining characteristic has been its diversity -- pop culture’s celebration of multiculturalism and of the struggles and triumphs of every group obscures the roots and persistence of inequality and prejudice, bias and privilege. Indeed, Hamilton presents a whitewashed (or highly simplified) portrait of that Founder, even if it was a pitch-perfect for the seeming optimism of the later years of the Obama administration.

To understand the long-standing and ongoing inequities in U.S. society, one must turn to radical history, which sought to lay bare U.S. societies’ duplicities, deceits and double standards; expose the underlying forces driving this country’s history; and show how inequalities were systematized and institutionalized. Largely a product of the 1960s civil rights, antiwar and women’s liberation movements, politically engaged radical history offered a devastating critique of the then-dominant narrative by emphasizing the centrality of violence, exploitation, domination and racism throughout American history.

Radical historians also uncovered alternatives to the dominant liberal tradition that were radically egalitarian and often anticapitalist and communitarian -- that have periodically resurfaced. These scholars also demonstrated decisively that American freedom was largely the consequence of resistance and struggle.

Nor was this revisionism confined to the academy: it could be seen on the silver screen in such films as Bonnie and Clyde, Little Big Man, M*A*S*H and The Godfather.

In its academic form, radical history was first and foremost a critique of corporate liberalism, liberal internationalism and liberal democracy, which at its core was profoundly undemocratic. Many of these studies emphasized hegemony, the ability of various elites to contain, co-opt, channel and defuse resistance from below, often through appeals to racism or nativism.

But the close connection between historical scholarship and political commitment gradually waned. In the early 1980s, radical history left the spotlight, as its major venues (like Marxist Perspectives) closed, historical scholarship grew more specialized and rigorously academic, new subfields proliferated, and the discipline of history took the cultural turn.

Radical history, however, did not die out. The scholarship on slavery and race, the history of capitalism, and a host of works on Western expansion, gender inequality and American interventionism have laid the groundwork for a new overarching narrative of U.S. history. At the same time, many African Americans, Latinos and Latinas, and Asian Americans, inside and outside the academy, formulated counternarratives that contest supposedly established truths.

In 1968, Richard Hofstadter observed that “Once in each generation the American people experience a crisis of real and troubling severity.” We are in the midst of such a crisis, facing an uncertain future. Much as an earlier generation’s history took its agenda and concerns from the demands made by labor activists, Populists and Progressive reformers, so we need a shared narrative that speaks to issues of power, privilege, persistent inequality and systemic bias raised by today’s protesters -- but does so in ways that aren’t ultimately disheartening and disempowering, but are, rather, stirring and inspiring.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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