To belong to a minority that the United States may designate a protected class means swatting aside binaries like entropy/negentropy, positive/negative. The sounds, smells, and sights of the past becloud the present, obscure the future. Just so. The Frederick Douglass who emerges from David W. Blight’s magisterial 2018 biography understood this all too well as a young man. But Douglass was practiced enough in politics to realize the white men in power required an optimism from the freedmen that by flattering Northern consciences was also inseparable from gratitude.
Lavished with White House invitations, his successors faced similar exposures to white paternalism. William Monroe Trotter confronting Woodrow Wilson. A. Philip Randolph resisting FDR’s charm onslaught. Lyndon Johnson, enraged by Martin Luther King, Jr.’s putative betrayal. Each meeting resulted in a different outcome, to be fair. But the presidents acted as if a Black leader asking a leader to keep promises were repulsive examples of lèse-majesté.
In “History As End: 1619, 1776, and The Politics of the Past,” Matthew Karp, author of the eye-opening This Vast Southern Empire: Slaveholders at the Helm of American Foreign Policy, studies the American political system’s reckoning with origin stories. While even Republicans in those snake pits called state legislatures have voted to remove rebel battle emblems from their flags, their allies in the media, as Karp notes, use these removals as excuses to gnash their teeth about #cancelculture’s effect on their memories of their shitty American history education. Karp:
Whatever birthday it chooses to commemorate, origins-obsessed history faces a debilitating intellectual problem: it cannot explain historical change. A triumphant celebration of 1776 as the basis of American freedom stumbles right out of the gate—it cannot describe how this splendid new republic quickly became the largest slave society in the Western Hemisphere. A history that draws a straight line forward from 1619, meanwhile, cannot explain how that same American slave society was shattered at the peak of its wealth and power—a process of emancipation whose rapidity, violence, and radicalism have been rivaled only by the Haitian Revolution. This approach to the past, as the scholar Steven Hahn has written, risks becoming a “history without history,” deaf to shifts in power both loud and quiet. Thus it offers no way to understand either the fall of Richmond in 1865 or its symbolic echo in 2020, when an antiracist coalition emerged whose cultural and institutional strength reflects undeniable changes in American society. The 1619 Project may help explain the “forces that led to the election of Donald Trump,” as the Times executive editor Dean Baquet described its mission, but it cannot fathom the forces that led to Trump’s defeat—let alone its own Pulitzer Prize.
Accepting a duty that might cause a tenured historian to pause for fear of sullying their principles, Karp assigns some credit to the 1776 Report, the right’s Earth-3 response to the NYT’s 1619 Project, for at least eschewing the dangerous folderol of the Lost Cause. But he reserves his most pungent criticism for the new historicism that, he observes, isolates America and its policies from the rest of the world; this new historicism, Karp argues, “either neglects the question of economic class or subordinates it to the politics of racism—producing a reductive and strangely motionless version of the past.” The essentialist foundation of much liberal history clashes with its insistence on progress.
Once Karp adduces Foucault his essay gets chewy fast. Read it as an antidote against the one-dimensional coverage of Juneteenth that will consume cable news outlets for the next forty-eight hours: coverage emphasizing triumphalism and progress.