The White House Conference on American History, as I pointed out in my last post, continued the narrative that God divinely sanctioned America and its founding. This narrative presents the Founding Fathers as devoutly Christian and purposefully focused on making American a “Christian” nation; however, that is not necessarily the case, and even if its is, as Lillian Smith points out in “The White Christian and His Conscience,” “Ever since the first white Christian enslaved the first black African the conscience of America has been hurting.” The use of Christianity to support American nationalism was only one part of the conference. The main thrust of the conference was to promote the “truth” of American history against the “lies” being spouted in the educational system and through works such as the 1619 Project.
In his remarks, Trump stated, “We must clear away the twisted web of lies in our schools and classrooms, and teach our children the magnificent truth about our country. We want our sons and daughters to know that they are citizens of the most exceptional nation in the history of the world.” In order to achieve this, Trump said he was establishing the “1776 Commission” in order to “encourage our educators to teach our children about the miracle of American history.”
This move can be seen as a reaction to the 1619 Project and other things, but what we must keep in mind is that this is nothing new. The fight over America’s “true” history did not begin with this moment. It did not begin with the Lost Cause. It began, in earnest, at the outset of America’s nationhood. It began when writers challenged the mythological narratives that had already arisen during the later part of the eighteenth and the early part of the nineteenth century.
In his 1829 Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World, David Walker confronted Thomas Jefferson and his views of race and enslavement. Along with this, he also pointed out that the wealth that American gained came from the backs of enslaved men, women, and children. He wrote that while others such as Greeks, Irish, Jews, and others “are called men”; yet, we, (coloured people) and our children are brutes!! and of course are, and ought to be SLAVES to the American people and their children forever!! to dig their mines and work their farms; and thus go on enriching them, from one generation to another with our blood and our tears!!!!”
Walker directly confronted the American myths taking shape in the early years of the republic. As well, as the nineteenth century moved forward and debates around what “all men are created equal” actually meant, others challenged the patriotic narratives that did not reflect the realities of America. One of the first African American novels, William Wells Brown’s Clotel or the President’s Daughter (1853), directly speaks to the rise of the the Founding Fathers’ myths. As Robert S. Levine puts it in the introduction to one edition, “Purporting to tell the stories of Thomas Jefferson’s slave mistress, daughters, and granddaughters, Clotel ‘talks back’ to U.S. culture, providing a brilliantly ironic challenge to the nation’s patriotic narratives.”
Rumors about Jefferson raping Sally Hemmings and fathering children by her swirled in the early part of the nineteenth century, and these rumors, as substantiated by DNA evidence in the twentieth century, proved true. However, this narrative did not reach into the cultural conversation, at least for me, until the DNA studies conducted in 1998. As such, I never knew about these connections or Jefferson raping a woman he enslaved. “[I]f Thomas Jefferson matters,” as Ta-Nehisi Coates put it in his congressional testimony on reparation, “so does Sally Hemmings.” We cannot have one without the other. We cannot cherry pick which historical records and narratives we want to celebrate.
The story of George Washington chopping down the cherry tree is another example, along with veneration of Mt. Vernon and the narrative that Washington freed his enslaved upon his death. Washington became an enslaver at the age of eleven when his father passed away in 1743 and willed Washington ten enslaved individuals. As well, when the Mount Vernon Ladies Association were working to purchase Mount Vernon to preserve it, they enlisted the help of Edwin Everrett to speak across the nation. Everrett would tell audiences Washington was a man of “serene dignity. . .whose probity you would trust with uncounted gold. . .whose lead you would implicitly follow in the darkest hours of trial.”
However, others, such as William Wilson (Ethiop) challenge the mythologizing of Washington that does not take into account the fact that while he fought for independence he enslaved countless individuals. In “Afric-American Picture Gallery,” Ethiop talks about Mt. Vernon, the way that the public perceives it, as an idyllic, pastoral space, and the ghosts of the enslaved that built up the space and still haunt the land. With this knowledge, Ethiop asks the reader, “Is this the home of the Father of his country?”
William Apess challenged these myths as well, specifically the mythological renderings we have created of the Pilgrims and the ways they “tamed” a “savage” continent. Apess specifically countered celebrations such as the December 22 events which celebrated the Pilgrims’ arrival at Plymouth, MA. The narrative went, and goes, that the Pilgrims, ordained by God, tamed an uncivil land, making it inhabitable. Daniel Webster, in his 1820 address, stated, “Here was man, indeed, unprotected and unprovided for, on the shore of a rude and fearful wilderness; but it was politic, intelligent and educated man.” That man (the Pilgrims) civilized the Indigenous peoples, and if they could not “civilize” them, they killed them or forced them off of their land.
Apess challenged this narrative, specifically in his 1836 Eulogy on King Phillip. There, he pointed out the colonists actions towards the Indigenous populations. Apess, a Methodist minister, condemns their actions, even condemning the ways they get upheld as “Christian” colonists whom God divinely touched. He writes,
But some of the New England writers say, that living babes were found at the breast of their dead mothers. What an awful sight! and to think too, that diseases were carried among them on purpose to destroy them. Let the children of the pilgrims blush, while the son of the forest drops a tear, and groans over the fate of his murdered and departed fathers. He would say to the sons of the pilgrims, (as Job said about his birthday,) let the day be dark, the 22d of December, 1622 let it be forgotten in your celebration, in your speeches, and by the burying of the Rock that your fathers first put their foot upon. For be it remembered, although the gospel is said to be glad tidings to all people, yet we poor Indians never have found those who brought it as messengers of mercy, but contrawise. We say, therefore, let every man of color wrap himself in mourning, for the 22d of December and the 4th of July are days of mourning and not of joy. Let them rather fast and pray to the great Spirit, the Indian’s God, who deals out mercy to his red children, and not destruction.
Apess, like Douglass, Walker, Ethiop, and more, calls out the hypocrisies rooted at the foundation of America. Each points out America’s faults, and specifically the constructed myths that sustain us. This is key. We cannot act as if the founding America was perfect and that we still do not feel the effects of that imperfect founding. The “truth” does not lie within these myths. We must have the whole story.
We must not demonize individuals who work to point out where America has failed because in that acknowledgment they point us to a way forward. That way forward comes from learning about the good, the bad, and the ugly that happened in our history. The acknowledgement of these things does not mean that individuals “hate” America. Instead, it means that individuals, myself included, want to see an America where everyone is equal.
Propaganda’s lyric from “Crooked Ways” sums up my feelings: “I don’t hate America, just demand that she keeps her promises.”