I’ve been pondering—and cringing at—a high school memory provoked by the online chatter over the past few days about the imminent publication of “The 1619 Project” in this week’s New York Times Magazine.
I think it happened during my junior year, 1970–71, when an exchange student visited my English class. I don’t remember his name, but he was from South Africa, and our teacher asked him to explain a little about apartheid and how it worked.
“Apartheid”? We-—good (white) college prep students in an excellent suburban California school in a world still a few years away from the international divestment movement—had never heard the word before. We were even more baffled when the teacher and the exchange student between them managed to explain what apartheid was. How could that be, we asked? Even segregation in the American South was on its way out, so South Africa’s complicated racial categories seemed archaic, ridiculous, and outrageous.
My remembered outrage is what makes me cringe today. We had not earned our outrage. I learned the American public school system’s traditional mythologized version of American history: the Founding Fathers were uniformly wise and noble men who created a nearly perfect governing document in the Constitution. And what little we learned of the Civil War involved a few battles between the Blue and the Gray, and a bit about how railroads and modern industrial production benefitted the Union side. About Reconstruction, we heard about carpetbaggers and scalawags who took advantage of and corrupted the new integrated state governments imposed by the victorious Union, and how that corruption and incompetence led to the end of Reconstruction and the restoration of more traditional Southern white-controlled governments.
There’s a slightly different memory, too, from sometime in junior high, of wondering how my civics textbook could point out the differences between the constitution of the U.S.S.R. and the less idealistic way the Soviet government really worked, and fail to note similar discrepancies between the ideals of our own founding documents and our government as it was and is.
Those occasional little glimmers of skepticism, though, never make much headway against our perpetual desire to believe the stories we white people tell ourselves about ourselves. It’s not enough for us to be the aspirational nation, the imperfect people always striving to live up to our ideals. We’d rather be the always-perfect nation, the people who already know best how to live and govern and show the rest of the world our shining example, even if it means we have to ignore most of the damage we have done becoming what we are.
I’m working my way through a long To Be Read list to remedy my ignorance—Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law, David Blight’s Frederick Douglass, new U.S. histories like Jill LePore’s These Truths and Alan Taylor and Eric Foner’s American Colonies, Foner’s authoritative Reconstruction, Brenda Wineapple’s The Impeachers, David Treuer’s The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee, and countless more. The history is there, if we will only look.
I’m astonished, yet not at all surprised by some of the reaction to The 1619 Project. The New York Times is stoking racist animus in order to sell more papers. Or bringing to light the less admirable parts of our past (and present) is unpatriotic and only damages our standing in the world. But just like Nikole Hannah-Jones in her inspring opening essay, I believe wholeheartedly in that aspirational nation, the one we can all work to make more perfect, the better nation we can create—if we have the clear sight and wholehearted courage to see what we have done to become who we are. Only by recognizing and acknowledging all our people, all our flaws along with all our virtues, do we have a prayer of reaching toward those ideals we are so proud of.
NOTE: The Pulitzer Center’s collection of curricular resources for The 1619 Project includes a downloadable pdf of the NYT Magazine issue itself.