There are reasons it is hard to make sense together | Learning how to tell collective stories

A story for you.

Last week I accidentally watched a news clip which made me sick to my stomach all night. It was nothing particularly new or outlandish. It was precisely the old, normal stuff which is made “news” every day. My mom and I were about to play a card game, when she received a text from another woman who is about her age and white, like both of us. In the clip, Tucker Carlson interviews Senator Tom Cotton, who defends his fight against the New York Time’s 1619 Project. The 1619 Project is an initiative (essays, podcast, and now, school curriculum) which aims to tell the story of the USA from the arrival of the first slave ship in 1619, to remember and emphasize that the institution of slavery was foundational to how the United States of America was created. As a response to the 1619 Project, Senator Cotton has produced a bill called the “Saving American History Act” to block federal funding from schools who use this “liberal,” “radical,” “lying” and “revisionist” curriculum.

I couldn’t stop thinking about the clip for the entirety of our card game and so when my mom asked if I wanted to play again, I told her no, and then looked up at her and started crying (my mom is a good listener, so this is a fairly common occurrence). Aware that I was feeling really sensitive, I welcomed that sensitivity in the space my mom allowed, and I started to speak about why that clip was so devastating to me. In the interview, Senator Cotton says that this curriculum will “indoctrinate our kids to hate America, to teach them that America was founded not on the natural equality of all mankind and the freedom that flows from that, but rather, on racism. Nothing could be further from the truth.” I don't think that he knows he is spreading a big lie—a lie about the past that many of us live with, and that we so deeply want to be true. My grief was about how far his solution is from the problem, and how sure he is that he is right about this one. The problem with this kind of lie is that it keeps us from the thing that could actually be common ground — work to accurately tell the story as clearly as we can. Or even, work to wrestle with the complexity of the story.

But, in order to keep a polarized present, we have to maintain a polarized way of seeing the past. There can be no reconciliation, no conversation, until we share an understanding of what happened. And that is hard work. The events in question are, after all, at a distance. And they did, after all, happen in a world that was so different than the world we now inhabit. The work of history is the work of understanding something so other and foreign to us. And the work of understanding history cannot simply be an act to push forward an agenda—it is the creation of the ground upon which we discern. This is no less true in our personal lives, the lives of our families and organizations, than it is in the United States of America.

This is why we have to learn how to do historical work in a deeply polarized time, at an epicenter of the polarization. Here are some thoughts I have which are based on the video, but could be utilised in many other contexts where rhetoric stands in the way of working towards understanding what really happened and what to do about it. Here are some issues I see:

  • Loving something by asking questions about it. Senator Cotton disallows a “middle position” with the rhetoric he uses. You are either trying to “indoctrinate kids to hate America” or you are trying to “save America by fighting the liberal agenda.” In a “middle position,” someone might be able to ask questions about America, and more specifically, the history of the American project: Was the American project distinct from other projects at its time? And how was it similar to other projects? What were some of the conflicts about the project? Different visions for how it could be carried out? What was happening at the time that made people think that the project was important and what energized the pursuit of that project? Were people in agreement about this, or were there many different visions? What were the means they were willing to use to make this project a success? Where was the center of agency and power?

  • The closer you get to reality, the clearer the picture gets. Senator Cotton's rhetoric shows a distinct lack of attention to and regard for the complexity of history, wherein we learn upon study that there are more things going on in any given time period than those living in it can understand due to their full submersion in the “normalcy” of their moment. (“Can’t see the forest for the trees!” “It’s the water you’re swimming in!”) This is, in fact, part of why we study history—because it is possible to know things in retrospect that it was hard for people at the time to know because of how inundated they were in what was happening and the social pressures they were under. We study history so we can both see what the people of the time saw, as well as what they didn’t see from the vantage point in which they were situated. If we could recognise the complex work that history requires, we could add to the questions they were asking at the time and in their context, the questions that weren't possible at their time for a range of reasons: What were some of the assumptions people of this time shared? Since slavery existed in this country existed for almost 250 years, how did understandings of slaves and "the equality of all persons" shift over that time? Who did the US consider persons? Since we know that slavery has existed for a long time, but it has not always been connected to race, how did the American project utilize race as a category in conversations around enslavement and freedom? What were the methods used to create and maintain this system? And what were the methods used to justify it?

  • If you want to create "free people", don't teach them to be determinists. Senator Cotton assumes that the words, intentions, and goals of the US constitution and the founding fathers outweigh the means and consequences. If we were to follow this line of reasoning, then we are being asked not only to get into the minds of the founding fathers (which again, does remain very important to the task of history), but further, and more importantly for his argument, to believe that the founding fathers did the only and best thing possible. Instead, we might ask: If chattel enslavement of African peoples and taking Native American land was perceived to be the “only way forward” at the time, why was that? Do we still believe that? Can we imagine any other ways to accomplish the American project? Whether or not we believe it could have gone better or can imagine things differently, what does it mean to be accountable to our history of not living up to the promises made to all people (by our current definitions) in the constitution?

None of the questions I’ve asked are rhetorical questions. And there are many more. But these are historical and political questions that I believe must be asked if we are to actually do the work of history and not collapse into a kind of hopeless determinism about history and politics. They involve both "getting into the minds" of those who lived through the founding of the US project, as well as utilising the benefit of time and our understanding of the effects of this founding action to ask questions about the project that weren't being asked at the time. And in inhabiting both their minds (insofar as this as possible) and our own minds (insofar as this is possible), we can think creatively with the benefit of multiple perspectives from multiple times. This requires time, intentional curriculum design, and an openness to learning things we don't already know.

Senator Cotton is not wrong about the power of history. He is, quite fundamentally, right. He knows, as we all do, that what we say about what happened affects everything. It affects, most pressingly, how we make account for where we are right now. And, if when and where we are is full of strife, tension, grief, anxiety, violence, resentment, fear, paralyzation and the like, (and oh boy is it) then we can be sure that history becomes of utmost importance.

When we tell history, particularly history that includes conflict and pain, we must know that in our narrativizing, we make choices about what to emphasize and how to make sense of what we are saying and how we think that history affects our present reality. And so we must ask: Do we tell (or not tell) history to protect ourselves from what is happening, or do we tell history to heal what is happening? Do we tell (or not tell) history to defend what we want reality to be, or to understand reality as it is and has been, however difficult that might be, so that we can stand on real, solid, common ground? A place from which to discern how now to live.

I think it is probably clear where I stand on that. We do the hard work of understanding the complexity of history so that we can ground ourselves (as much as is possible) in what actually happened, so we can have a clearer understanding of how the past affects what is actually happening, so that we can make choices about how to actually heal. Healing is not forgetting. Healing is not telling what you meant by what you did. Healing is not excusing yourself by saying that you didn’t know any other way. Healing starts with verbalizing and taking accountability for what actually happened, what has continued to happen, and what the actual effects have been, whether or not they were intended. Healing can happen individually, socially and systemically. And, strangely, not all wounds are as painful as we might imagine to heal, and some are much more painful. But it isn't about avoiding or running towards pain, it is about moving towards reality.

The work of understanding what happened and why is hard. And sometimes it seems easier to just not, especially if we can see a viable avenue for avoiding the process. But, I don’t think you are here because you are one of those people. I think you are here because you know or believe or want to believe, like I do, that however uncomfortable it is at times, what is exposed by the light becomes visible, and what is visible becomes light (you can head straight into Ephesians 5 for that gem).

I’m not trying to be glib here. And I’m not defending the 1619 project as the solution. It is merely an example. Like other actions we take to understand and tell our history, it is not only the good intention that matters. I don’t know enough about the curriculum itself, the actual way of teaching that that curriculum encourages (though there is a lively conversation about it here) to be an all out advocate for the 1619 project. But, I know it is getting something right when it questions how we tell a story, and from whose perspective(s).

For those who want to simply "get past" the "unfortunate reality" of slavery, we must remember: forgetting or downplaying key moments in a story makes the story very confusing. That doesn’t mean that stories can only be told through key moments but they are, like the metaphor “key” would imply, essential to unlocking the doors of the narrative. We can, of course, contend what these key moments are (that is, in fact, what historians DO), but we cannot wilfully forget elements of the story so that we can tell the story we want to tell to get the results that we want. First, that’s morally repugnant and dishonest. But, secondly, if you don’t really care about moral codes and you champion efficiency or pleasure or something, it won’t work, or at least, no for long. Things that “work” have to work within reality as it is.

On the other hand, remembering key moments and seeing things for how they actually are or were is no less confusing than forgetfulness, but it places the confusion in a different place--the realm of action. Knowing what is real doesn’t all of a sudden mean that you know what to do about it--solutions are not always obvious or straightforward. You might have to feel a lot of things. Weigh a lot of things. See yourself and your world in a new light and from another perspective. Ask questions. Seek wisdom. Pray and discern. Sacrifice something. Likely all of those things. Reality requires all the tools we have--and hey, in case you are waiting for an Enneagram reference here--the Enneagram is a super helpful tool for helping us deal with how and why we shut down to perceiving certain elements of our little piece of reality.

With eyes wide open and the Enneagram as a tool for clarifying how you orient yourself towards reality, I invite you to the work of seeing yourself and your world as they actually are, weak as you actually are, strong as you actually are, embedded in time and place as you actually are. It is in this space where we start to ask interesting and human questions, where we start to welcome our fears about reality and learn to ask them why they are here and what they are trying to protect us from. And right then and there we are invited to risk knowing whether or not the threats are real. This is what it is like to seek knowledge as a human—a vulnerable and communal process in which we learn how easy it is to be fooled, how easy it is to not know what is true, and to prefer it that way because of the risk that knowing reality poses to our fantasies about how we’d like things to be.

There is a lot more to be asked, heard, and said. Let me know if you have thoughts to add, questions ask, challenges to make, nuances to help us, et cetera. Thanks for being a part of this community—let’s keep interesting conversations going—the kind where we risk being affected by reality and discern what to do from that scary, but good and fertile ground. Relevant links for reading more:

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