Saturday, December 10, 2011
December 10-11, 2011: So What Now?
In the past week’s posts, I have tried first to lay out some of my fundamental ideas about American diversity and identity, and then to consider (with help from some exemplary scholars) what those ideas might mean for revised histories and understandings of the arrival and exploration, Puritan, Revolutionary, and Civil War eras and communities. I certainly don’t feel any need to argue in this space, or more exactly for readers who are interested in the conversations to which this space connects, for the value of those kinds of historical implications; we all, I believe, would agree that they are in of and themselves important and worthwhile. Yet I know that, pat cliché about “those who do not understand the past” notwithstanding, it is not nor should it be a given that new historical narratives or understandings necessarily change things for us in the present and future; that is, while I most definitely believe that they do lead to such changes, I likewise believe that it is incumbent on us A`mericanStudies scholars to make that case consistently, explicitly, and clearly.
I would go about making that case in a variety of ways, but here will focus on two, one more of a corrective to and the other more of an inspiration for our current and future conversations and community. For the former, I believe that many of the usages to which we put our past, especially the over-simplified, mythologized, and too often propagandistic usages in political contexts, would be greatly complicated, if not overtly refuted, by these different historical narratives and understandings. To take only one example, many political usages of the Founding Fathers and their ideas and writings (including the most prominent contemporary such usage, by the Tea Party) tend to connect those Revolutionary voices to critiques of government activism and programs, arguments for individual liberty in contrast with (and potentially threatened by) state authority, and so on. Yet if we define the Revolutionary era in significant measure through those African American slaves who used the Declaration and its ideas to argue for their own freedom, and even more crucially did so by appealing to the new post-1776 state legislatures and so to the power of their own governments to protect them from an unjust tyrannical social system (a power for which James Madison argued at length in Federalist 51), then our perspective on what the Revolution and its core ideas might mean for a contemporary understanding of the state’s role in protecting and extending rights to all Americans would, to my mind, look very different indeed.
While I think such historical correctives are definitely important—and are in fact a main reason why I moved into public scholarship at all, to try to push back on the mythologizing historical narratives being advanced by “historians” at Glenn Beck University and the like—it’s fair to say that their main effect is likely not going to be a unifying one, that they do not offer clearly shared histories for an already divided national community. Fortunately, I believe that my particular brand of historical revisionism does have precisely such unifying potential. On the broad level, a main reason why I developed my cross-cultural transformation definition of American identity is that it represents what I see as a shared national experience, one that is a key, connective part of the heritage and identity of all Americans (rather than, for example, a multicultural historical narrative, which emphasizes a number of distinct cultural heritages and identities). And more specifically, these revisions of historical periods can provide similarly unifying and, often, inspiring national histories and stories—narratives that neither privilege one group at the expense of others (ie, the idealizing of the Puritans) nor emphasize division and discord (ie, the Revolution’s hypocrisies related to slavery), but that instead highlight cross-cultural efforts and successes that illustrate the best of an era’s national meanings. Such successes were never absolute and did not—and thus in our narratives would not—elide the more divided sides to our national community, but they offer inspiring glimpses of an alternative, much more genuinely ideal America for which we can certainly continue to strive.
That’s the goal, at least! More next week, but (while I hope this goes without saying) I’d sure love to hear your takes on the histories and images of different time periods, or American communities and identities in general, in comments.
PS. What I just said!