President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama stand in the "Door of No Return" while touring the Masion des Esclaves (House of Slaves) Museum on Goree Island, Senegal, June 27, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
As the United States edges toward a second Jim Crow era -- with right-wing whites seeking to "take our country back" via Supreme Court rulings and voter suppression against black and brown Americans -- there is an urgent need to re-examine U.S. history and remove the pro-racist distortions that have been implanted by white supremacists for more than two centuries.
If past indeed is prologue, then the United States must finally begin to get the facts straight and strip away the fawning mythology surrounding Thomas Jefferson and some of America's other Founding slaveholders -- or risk reliving some of the vilest chapters of U.S. history.
Subtly and not so subtly, those history texts and many other popular historical accounts minimized the evils of slavery; apologized for the hypocrisy of Thomas Jefferson and other unrepentant slaveholders who spoke eloquently of "liberty"; viewed the Confederacy through the romantic haze of Southern chivalry and courage; treated Northern demands for black civil rights during Reconstruction as unreasonable if not crazy; disparaged President Ulysses S. Grant's administration as corrupt for financial scandals rather than as heroic for defending freedom for African-Americans; and generally downplayed the suffering of blacks, Native Americans and other minorities in the later decades of the Nineteenth Century and the early Twentieth.
I'm sure my experience with how U.S. history was taught was not unique. Though I grew up in Massachusetts, the home of the Civil War's first African-American regiment, there was no escaping the racist viewpoints embedded in the history schoolbooks. They taught a national narrative of a past that was easy to celebrate but far from the truth.
However, to evaluate today's historic push from the Right to roll back voting rights for black, Hispanic and low-income people requires Americans understanding the real history. For many, that will require unlearning many pleasing myths and confronting some unpleasant realities.
Only then can Americans recognize the fork in the road that they now face, with one direction leading toward a multicultural democracy reflecting the best principles of the Republic -- and the other, a U-turn back toward the nation's shameful days of racial repression and bigotry.
This demythologizing will not be easy for many Americans. It will force them to re-examine some of their favorite historical figures, the likes of Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, George Mason and James Madison. Though all were slaveholders, they have been made icons on the "libertarian Right," which never seems to be troubled by the contradiction between liberty and slavery.
Racial Code Words
The historical reassessment would also put into a different -- and far more negative -- light the claims about the value of "limited government," another favorite libertarian slogan and one that has served as code words, much like "states' rights," for the defense of slavery and segregation.
Even the phrase "Jeffersonian democracy" -- often used to suggest the highest ideal of popular government -- will have to be rethought, as just one more euphemism for a system based on the interests of slave-owning plantation owners, the real base for Jefferson's political movement.
Ironically, this re-evaluation was provoked by the Right as it sought to cloak itself in the garb of the Revolutionary War era and to sell gullible Tea Partiers on a gross misreading of the Founding Era's history and the U.S. Constitution.
The Right sought to strengthen its claim to the Revolution's aura by sending "scholars" back in time to cherry-pick some quotes which were then disseminated by the Right's imposing propaganda machinery. The result was a "history" that served the current political needs of right-wing Republicans and libertarians, but wasn't real.
Yet, having spent millions of dollars on this historical propaganda and billions on its right-wing echo chamber, the Right insisted that it was speaking for the nation's First Principles. The Right's version of history held that the Framers of the Constitution intended to strictly "limit" the federal government and to create "sovereign" states.
According to this right-wing "scholarship," these principles were violated by activist presidents, including Franklin Roosevelt (with his Depression-era New Deal), Lyndon Johnson (with his civil rights laws and Great Society), and Barack Obama (with the Affordable Care Act and new Wall Street regulations).
Some prominent rightists, such as Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, even pretend to intuit the Framers' "original" intent while striking down modern federal laws that deviate from the supposed Founding ideals. Some rightists argue to this day that Social Security and Medicare are "unconstitutional" (along with, of course, Obamacare).
For years now, the Right claimed to speak for the Framers with little challenge from the American Left, which generally views the authors of the Constitution with disdain for their aristocratic elitism and their compromises on slavery. Many mainstream historians also shied away from this debate presumably fearing that it might put tenure and reputations in jeopardy.