Why America Is at War Over the History of Slavery

I think part of what’s happened is over the past several years with the Black Lives Matter movement, there have been more people—not everyone, but certainly more—whose understanding of the history of this country has been complicated, has been nuanced, has been expanded, and people are being more honest about what that history is.

I think the implication of that is that you have millions of people who are in the ongoing process of recalibrating their previous understandings of what America has been and what America is today. As a result, I think you have this incredible amount of pushback from people for whom asking questions of American history is an existential threat, because then they have to ask questions of themselves. And they have to reassess their own sense of who they are and how they fit into that. When you have been told a specific story your entire life about how you and your family and your community fit into the American story, and then people come in and tell a different story of America, or a story that includes a lot of facets that were previously left out, then it threatens your sense of self, it threatens your identity.

David Borsen, who’s one of the docents at Monticello, told me that when you tell a different story about Jefferson, then you’re telling a different story about America. And when people have to ask questions about, or reassess their understanding of Jefferson, they have to reassess their understanding of themselves.

Of course. Because people are invested in a very intimate and emotional way with the stories about the country that they live in and the standing that they have within that country. And so, as you note, we’re in this moment where so many people are now reexamining that, and that reexamination is necessarily going to be a messy and complicated process that involves some lashing out and backlash.

Absolutely. And I think that there are people who navigate these questions differently, right? You have a group of people for whom there’s a sense of, they didn’t know what they didn’t know. There has been a systemic and structural failure in our education system that is in part tied to the success of historical and ideological projects, projects like the Lost Cause that have made it so that many people do not understand the history of slavery in any way that is commensurate with the actual impact that it has had on this country.

And I think when those people are confronted with new information, when those people go to Monticello, or on a walking tour of the Underground Railroad in New York, they are often confronting information that they have not previously encountered. But there is also an openness with which to receive that information and then to take that information on and have this history inform how they make sense of themselves and the landscape of inequality across this country.

There are also a lot of people with whom you can share all the empirical evidence, all the primary source documents, all the historical fact and it won’t matter. Because the reason they believe what they believe is not because they don’t have information, it is because that information threatens the position that they have taken on for themselves within their family and within society. It is a truly existential threat to how someone understands who they are in the world.


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