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Saturday, June 18, 2016

June 18-19, 2016: ApologyStudying: Apologizing for America?

[Inspired by two recent events about which I wrote on Monday, this week’s series has focused on the complex question of whether and how America should apologize for historic wrongs. Leading up to this special weekend post featuring broader thoughts from both me and fellow AmericanStudiers—add yours, please!]
First, I wanted to consider for a final moment why these narratives about “apologizing for America” seem to have such purchase in our conversations. Certainly the “my country right or wrong” concept can be found in every nation and culture, as illustrated nicely by this Midnight Oil song on such narratives in Australia. Yet at the same time, many Americans seem particularly paranoid about the possibility of collective apologies, to the point where (as I wrote in this long-ago post) we’re 150 years out from slavery with no national slavery museum, compared for example to the speed with which Germany built a Stasi Museum. And I would argue that these fears of apologies and dark histories stem in large part from narratives of American exceptionalism, the idea that we’ve been a special and blessed place from our origins through our Revolution, our spread across the continent, the American Century, and down into our present.
As I wrote in this recent Huffington Post piece, though, the answer to those narratives isn’t to swing the pendulum all the way to the opposite extreme, to focus on the worst of American history and identity. After all, “my country has always been wrong” is no less over-simplified than the other end of the spectrum, and no more likely to lead to nuanced narratives and conversations. Moreover, I believe that the kinds of historical apologies I’ve traced in this week’s series could help us remember the kinds of critical patriots I highlighted in that post: the lives and work of Fred Korematsu and Yuri Kochiyama in relation to Japanese internment, to cite only one example. Such collective memories offer the best possible response to the paranoid fears of “apologizing for America,” reminding us that it’s often been in our darkest moments that our most inspiring figures and histories can be found.
Enough from me! Other responses to the week’s posts and topics:
On Twitter, Derek McGrath writes, “Happy to read this discussion. Reminds me of Sara Ahmed on national politics and apologies.”
Ellak Roach follows up, writing, “Enjoyed the post as well. As someone studying PolySci, it's good to check against my own assumptions on things like this,” and adding in response to Friday’s post, “I think the argument contrasting Japanese Internment and American slavery is a strong one towards reparations.”
Following up Tuesday’s post, Shelli Homer writes, “I learned about Japanese internment in junior high from a Danielle Steel novel. #embarrassingnotembarrassing”
Heidi Kim, an expert on Japanese internment, writes, “The appropriations debate was indeed the inglorious aftermath to the Civil Liberties Act. Another important aspect is the presidential apology. I like to show my students the videos of Pres. Clinton's apology about Japanese American confinement and Pres. Reagan's apology about Tuskegee. Very different styles, wording, and staging.”
Next series starts Monday,
PS. Other responses or thoughts?


  1. I wonder about the cycle of the american exceptionalism and denial connected to education. As I mentioned, I learned about Japanese internment from Danielle Steele (due to my grandmother's failing eye sight), but it was not mentioned at all in any of my formal education, even in college.

    Within the last month I have visited several plantations turned into state parks and the information from the guides has been factually incorrect when it comes to dates and events, while the language used causes me to cringe. At the state run plantations, the guides referred to the enslaved/slaves as simply the "plantation workers" or started a sentence with "the silver lining of slavery was..." I have left every tour confused. This was government sponsored information.

    So when I wonder about the cycle connected to education, would the American government taking responsibility for these events or "dark histories" change the way they are represented? Would these educational spaces start getting real about the events? Or, would the education need to change to enable citizen's to hold the government accountable? I spend a lot of time teaching history in my classes because students knowledge of American history is extremely limited and in the vein of American exceptionalism.


  2. Thanks so much for adding these great thoughts, Shelli!