Don’t Mess With Our History

by | September 28, 2020

As our nation reels in the aftermath of RBG’s untimely death, one piece of news that has perhaps as severe implications for our democracy has gone almost unnoticed: Trump’s announcement of a 1776 Federal Commission to promote Patriotic History Education.  With its goal to ensure the delivery of a consistently patriotic narrative in schools, it appears designed to classify any history instruction that critically discusses slavery and race as ‘Un-American’. In essence, the President seems to be working towards an erasure of our nation’s history instead of its preservation.

We are both from Boston.  History matters here. We are proud of it. It is central to our economy and to our identity as a city. As Bostonians, we are calling on the rest of America to pay attention and to block the efforts of such a Commission, for it presents a direct assault on the historical legacy that we carry for American democracy.

People call Boston the birthplace of the American Revolution and of freedom. We are also proud to call ourselves a city of innovation. And innovators do not just pop out of thin air. Rather, they build on history.  They solve the challenges, improve the conditions or fix the systems with which history presents them. Innovators bend the arc of history into the future by striving to make our lives better. 

The story of American democracy, while connected to innovation, is not one of linear progress. Nor is progress inevitable. Our history may be filled with hope, creativity, and enlightenment, but it is also tainted by anger, bigotry and ignorance. William Hastie, a former judge and the first African American Governor in the U.S., understood these contradictions when he explained, “democracy is a process; it is becoming rather than being. It can be easily lost, but it is never fully won.”

In few regions of the world can you see so many markers of this continuous democratic process of becoming as you can in Massachusetts.  While tourists come here to see the story of our fight for freedom, an observant citizen will find signs of an imperfect and uneven struggle to complete the revolution that began here. It is in Quincy that John Adams wrote the constitution for Massachusetts that informed the Constitution of the United States. It is in the Berkshires that Elizabeth Freeman used that very constitution to sue for her freedom from slavery. David Walker wrote his famous Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World from his Boston home in 1829, challenging America to provide her promised liberties to all.

To be an American patriot in Boston has often meant realizing that the pursuit of freedom can require breaking the law.  Civil disobedience was the preferred strategy of some of our city’s most important trail-blazers, including white Abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, Lewis Hayden, a Black Activist who defied the fugitive slave laws, Concord reformer Henry Thoreau and Massachusetts-born suffragists Lucy Stone and Susan B. Anthony. 

At our most optimistic, we believe that it is fundamentally American to call on our established systems of power – in government, the social sector, and in business – to do better. In the Narrative Life of Frederick Douglass, which was published in 1845, Douglass penned a searing testament to the moral and legal horrors of slavery. But despite his frustrations, he never lost hope in the democratic pursuit of justice. Similarly, AR Chong, a Chinese Immigrant to our home city of Boston who was distressed by rising anti-Chinese prejudice, wrote a letter in 1879 full of hopeful dismay, stating “In your Declaration of Independence it is asserted that all men are born free and equal, and it is understood by the civilized world that the United States of America is a free country, but I fear there is a backward step being taken by the government.”

Such backward steps are part of the democratic process of becoming, because living up to the lofty ideals of democracy is hard. Human beings, at some primal level, distrust people who are different from us. We often take rights and privileges that we enjoy for granted and fail to make sure that others can also enjoy them. We struggle to negotiate between conflicting priorities and opinions. Innovators, activists and visionaries push for and often affect change, but as humans, we predictably respond to change with fear and backlash. 

It is the job of historians to chronicle our progress and the backsteps, and to create an understanding of the forces that have been at work in our society to help provide context to our times. Acknowledging the faults and failures, the bigotry, and blindspots in our past is not unpatriotic or ‘Un-American.’ Rather, it is in telling stories of these tensions and contradictions that historians help us understand who we are as free people.

And free people are full of contradictions.  Some of our nation’s most avid supporters of abolition were among the loudest anti-immigrant voices in the country. Champions of civil rights were often openly discriminatory towards women.  As we acknowledge these contradictions, we also celebrate each step that makes our democracy more complete. 

Teaching history, as compared to propaganda, promotes foundational civic skills, including the ability to inquire about the world, to analyze and interpret what we are learning, to recognize patterns across time, and to avoid mistakes of the past.  

Poet Maya Angelou may have said it best when she declared, “History, […] cannot be unlived; but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.” History also allows us to connect with others, find our identity, and create community.  These are the tools, habits, and dispositions that we need to build and sustain inclusive communities for an ever-changing world.

History is not, to paraphrase Shakespeare, an ever-fixed mark. Nor should it be used to promote nationalism or single narratives.  A Federal Commission for Patriotic history that denies the truth goes against the fundamental values of America, against liberty, and is in direct contradiction to the ideals of our revolution. 

As a nation conceived in liberty, it is incumbent on us to resist the creation and work of such a commission and ensure that we practice and teach history that will allow us to become a better democracy.

Adam Strom is the Executive Director of Re-Imagining Migration. Fernande Raine is the Founder and Director of Got History?

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