Re-learning the American Story

9 May

James Baldwin, in his recently reissued essay, Nothing Personal, observes that Americans are afraid of their past history, and as a result cannot understand their present and are deprived of their future. 

Why are we afraid of our past history?

I think of several reasons. Like all groups, our nation tells a primal story about itself, we put it in our school books and teach it to our children. We call our story “the American Dream”: We were persecuted people in Europe, coming to a New World wilderness. We found freedom and worked hard to turn the wilderness into a fine place to live and work. Our story parallels in many ways the biblical story of the ancient Israelites, and we frequently consider ourselves God’s chosen people. We say we are a nation of immigrants, and that we welcome others to join us.

This primal story was written and passed on mainly by the settlers who came to New England, with some input from those who settled the other original thirteen colonies.

As the years went by, we learned more about our nation’s origins and realize there is more to our history than the exploits of the original northern European settlers. Africans came at the beginning, imported against their will as slaves and mostly not through New England, but through ports in Virginia, South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida; Chinese arrived in California; Japanese went first to Hawaii and from there to the mainland. Since we took over, in the Mexican-American War, the areas that Spain had claimed, Latinos came into the United States by annexation. Huge numbers of immigrants came in the nineteenth century from many regions of Europe, not only through Ellis Island, but also through ports on the Gulf Coast.

The story we learned in school, centering on New England doesn’t work anymore, because we know many American communities have different stories to tell.

Stories of origin seldom tell the underside, the failings of the founders, but as time goes on, those flaws come clear. The founders tolerated slavery, limited the rights of women, and dealt with native Americans in totalitarian fashion. Today, although some of us want to include this negative side in the story, many others resist. Most nations ignore or deny the negative element—they project it on “outsiders.” 

Even though most Americans today are quite “fundamentalist” in interpreting our Founding Fathers and the Constitution, there are powerful forces for updating our story and our national life. The founders were opposed to democracy, so they established a representative republic,  which gave us the Electoral College. Today many of us want a democracy. Much of our current struggle today is between those who insist on democracy (and want to expand voting rights) and those who prefer the founding vision (and limit voting rights).

The “founding fathers” were affluent and well-educated. Their new  nation favored people like themselves. Since their story leaves out more than one-half of the American people, it is understandable that our story has to be expanded to include everyone.

Why are we afraid of our past? Some are afraid because they are left out of the official story of our past and suffer accordingly. Others are afraid, because they fear that what the true story reveals will be to their disadvantage. Our story is not neutral, it depicts “losers” and “winners,” and re-learning our history will change the win-lose balance and upset the apple cart in ways that cause fear. Since how we tell the story determines both our present and our future, they strike fear, as well.

The great contribution of the American founders was the principle that all people are created equal. It’s the engine driving the effort to re-learn our history. The story of America involves constantly re-writing our story, but that requires honesty in facing the historical record and courage in accepting revision.

James Baldwin experienced the trauma inflicted by the American story. He understood the story can explode with tragic results. Our task is to re-tell the story and try to avoid the explosions.

How would you re-tell the American story?

(c) Phil Hefner.     5/8/2021

3 Responses to “Re-learning the American Story”

  1. Liftthescreen May 10, 2021 at 2:43 am #

    From Stewart Herman—

    Marvelously lucid writing, Phil. You make the issue of reinterpreting the past acceptable, even if not particularly winsome.

    Why are we afraid of our past history? First, I suspect many people simply don’t think it needs reinterpretation to include the stories of others. There goes a large part of the audience!

    But then I’d hazard the guess that many people might be less afraid than simply not interested because there would be nothing in the new interpretation (listening to the origin stories of others) for them. What is to be gained by losing your tribe’s place as principal agent in the creation of American greatness?

    For the religiously grounded, a national story that echoes the ancient Israelite story wins a lot of points. There is something in that story for us–until we are compelled to understand that we are more like the cruel Egyptians than the beleaguered Israelites. If a story doesn’t affirm agency, why embrace it?

    I think a much more modest aim is needed–a story line that captures, in a bold, even symbolic way, the intertwined evil and good in the agency of the white tribes that settled America. We can’t and souldn’t give up our agency, in particular by letting it be one-upped by others. White tribes have been the dominant force, after all, even as we learn more and more how slavery has shaped our nation.

    But we can and should absorb the deeply tragic nature of that agency, with all its flaws. We need to keep ourselves in the story in the most honest way possible

  2. Liftthescreen May 10, 2021 at 7:36 pm #

    Kurt Hendel responds—
    How would I re-write the story? I would point out that diversity has always been part of our story, and that diversity must not only be recognized but also celebrated since it has enriched the U.S. experience and history in profound ways. Diversity is not something to be denied but to affirmed, with gratitude.

  3. Liftthescreen May 13, 2021 at 12:39 am #

    From Esther Shir—

    An excellent summary of many of the most important issues which face (if we choose to see and reflect on them) This year of isolation gave me the chance to read many of the terrific books which have been published in recent years regarding the trials, tribulations, and triumphs of Black Americans. As an American history major in college, I did know some of this history, but certainly not in the detail which these new publications have provided.

    In my mind, the United States works ONLY if we are true to our country’s older motto : E Pluribus Unum. Or as my favorite political bumper sticker put it : “Stronger together”.

    When we are NOT the nation where anyone from anywhere can come to start a new life, when we, as a nation, fail to live out “E Pluribus Unum”, I fail to see what else would make the USA an “exceptional” nation.

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