Friday, January 7, 2011

American Ahistory 101


“… [P]reponderantly the histories have been written by the winners,” Alex Haley wrote literally at the end of his 1976 classic, “Roots.” It’s one of the more downbeat assessments of one of the century’s signature historical books.

You can argue its truth or its merits, but it certainly explains the recent push by various historical revisionists to make changes in American history, wannabe winners more consumed with hubris and rationalization than scholarship and fact.

They’ve come in something of a rush lately.

Reviving a tradition that was discontinued in previous Democratic administrations, Bob McDonnell, the newly-minted governor of Virginia, issued an April proclamation declaring that month to be Confederate History Month in the state. He did this at the request of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, an organization of descendants of rebels.

McDonnell, though, goofed in making his proclamation one that had no mention of slavery, the peculiar institution that gave the Confederacy its very oxygen. Slavery in the state of Virginia, wiped out by decree.

Days later McDonnell got himself straightened out (or his aides did), coming up with an edited version of the proclamation, and a mea culpa: “The failure to include any reference to slavery was a mistake, and for that I apologize to any fellow Virginian who has been offended or disappointed.”

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Then there was the gentle, kudzu-coated reverie of Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, sometimes considered a possible presidential contender, bless his heart. In a recent interview with The Weekly Standard, Barbour recalled his teenage years in Yazoo City, Miss., a recollection more “American Graffiti” than Harper Lee.

“I just don’t remember it as being that bad,” he said.

“I remember Martin Luther King came to town, in ’62. He spoke out at the old fairground and it was full of people, black and white. ... The truth is, we couldn’t hear very well. We were sort of out there on the periphery.

“We just sat on our cars, watching the girls, talking, doing what boys do,” he said. “We paid more attention to the girls than to King.”

Folks in South Carolina didn’t think another part of American history — the events preceding the Civil War — were that bad, either. The Confederate Heritage Trust of Charleston recently held its Secession Ball, a gala event that was the kickoff of a four-year! celebration of the 150th anniversary of the Palmetto State’s secession from the United States, and, by extension, the cascade of intolerance that would shortly become the Civil War.

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In the great read-a-thon of the Constitution, performed on Thursday in the House of Representatives, there was no mention of Article 1, Section 2, Paragraph 3 of that document, the deservedly infamous three-fifths compromise between Southern and Northern states by which slaves — African Americans — were counted for census purposes as three-fifths of themselves. It remains one of the more psychically corrosive relics of the Constitution, and for the Republican-controlled House, it didn’t exist.



Well, thank God for Glenn Beck. The conservative author and Fox News fabulist appeared to have a moment of clarity on his Fox program on Wednesday. Beck called the compromise “an outrage — unless you know why they put that in there.” He then went on to justify the inclusion of the compromise from the hardly-enlightened perspective of southerners in 1787.

And this week, of course, we’re still wrestling with the recent announcement that Alan Gribben, an English professor at Auburn University, will (with the complicity of the curiously-named NewSouth Books) republish Mark Twain’s American classic “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” in a version in which the N-word is deleted in each of its 219 instances and replaced with the word “slave.”

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You have to hand it to these conservative thought leaders and politicians; they’ve got no shortage of guts (though some will certainly call it nerve). From their narrow, parochial, defensive perspective, it makes a kind of sense: If you can’t change the prevailing narrative about some of the more unfortunate aspects of our racial history, double down and do what you can to change the history itself. Who’s around from the past to argue, anyway?

Ironically, this dangerously ambitious movement isn’t so much changing history as it is revealing just how academically shortsighted and cavalier it really is about history in the first place.

Most reasonable, rational people can agree that history, by virtue of what it is, is something you have to take with the bark on. We're endlessly free to interpret the facts; we're not free to create our own.

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Among other things, American history is a forensic experience. We know how we got to where we are disclosure by disclosure, event by event, law by law, change by change — a steady accretion of quantifiable knowledge. That’s a chain of discovery that won’t be ruptured because the governor of Mississippi recalls the civil rights era through decidedly rose-colored glasses, or because a college professor thought obliterating the N-word from a necessary American tract would be the considerate thing to do.

The conservative prime movers driving these passive-aggressive revisitations of America’s racial past are serving up an alternate history, a bizzarro-world chronology of racial events in which the word nigger never existed in the central American novel (nor in the national life that made that novel possible); the legislative compromise that marginalized African American identity was meant to end slavery; that compromise was never part of the Constitution; and the randomly vicious heyday of the civil rights era wasn’t really such a big deal at all.

They’re offering us not much more than three-fifths of American history. They’re presenting us with a national counter-narrative, a history based not on documented fact but on the absence of fact, the power of a collective and preferential reimagining of events. American ahistory class is in session.

Image credits: Mark Twain: Library of Congress (public domain). McDonnell: © 2010 Gage Skidmore.

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