Some years ago, I had the occasion of being at a dinner party on the fourth of July with a bunch of graduate students, and we realized that among 11 of us, we came from 9 different countries. After commenting on this and the date and discussing American fireworks laws for a while, we began to compare what we’d been taught in our home countries in school about the history of both our own nations, and about the world. It was a deeply enlightening, often funny conversation.
One of the funniest and most worriesome parts of the evening occurred when the other American and I compared notes. I had grown up in grubby urban mill cities in New England, while he was the child of Caribbean immigrants who moved to rural west Texas when he was very young. As we compared notes, the laughing consensus emerged that he and I had effectively also grown up in two different countries. A woman from India quite seriously observed that a Texan public school education and a New England one seemed to have the same fundamentally different – and mutually hostile – versions of history that she and the two sisters from Pakistan had experienced, growing up on either side of the border of Kashmir. This was an exaggeration, but not as much as I wished it was.
Things got more serious, though, when we began to talk about nationalism, and the way it shaped our experience and understanding of the world. All of us had received nationalist versions of our histories, we knew. All of us were highly educated, mostly in fields that involved considerable study of history and politics. And yet when we started seriously talking about how we had been trained to see ourselves and our place in the world – we were all a little uncomfortable, I think at admitting what we’d been taught about our own countries and about each other’s. I had thought (or rather not thought much about it) that we Americans and the British woman at the table would be uniquely ashamed of our history. In fact, the sense that we’d imbibed something false ran through all of us.
At the same time, all of us thrilled to certain moments in our past, and when asked to tell the stories – because most of us had not grown up with them, you could here the way they still grasped our imaginations. I mentioned the classic American patriotic poems “Barbara Frietchie” and “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere” and when called upon to recite by those who had never heard them, found that my Texan friend and I had more in common than you’d think – we both couldn’t help ourselves – the poems are a kind of pedantry, sentimental and factually problematic but neither of us could resist them, either.
Both my Texan friend and I knew the truth – that while Barbara Fritchie was a real person and an ardent Unionist, the story was apocryphal. We both knew that William Dawes, not Paul Revere was the one who made the whole of the ride. Neither of us even thought they were very good poems. We both cared about the truth of history. But we also cared about the stories of history, and felt that there was something true for each of us in the Patriotism they invoked – and every single one of the other people at that table had a story, or a poem or a song about which they could tell you exactly how the words weren’t really true – and about which they could not tell you what was true. But something was true in there.
After a while, a man who had grown up in South Africa observed that he envied those of us from Western Europe and America. We asked why, and he very calmly observed that he felt that we in the Western world had learned to do something that his country had not – to live with our past history of evil acts, and to sort out and valorize at least some of what was good in the midst of that evil. He felt that South Africa in many ways had had to throw out much of its history – that it had no origin story, except as a victim and then a perpetrator. Britain, he observed, was first a victim (he was speaking of the Norman Invasion) and then a perpetrator (in its long colonial history), but it was able at least to speak of some parts of it history, if in fragile ways, as unambiguously good – the good existing alongside the evil. He felt that South Africa had yet to begin that narrative, and observed that this was why he was studying history, so that someday, he could help narrate that story for his own nation.
The other American and I, and the British woman protested – we claimed that our countries have not fully managed to do this – that it is is not separate and clean, that we cannot honestly clling to our institutions, to even the good parts of our history, because there is so much evil – slavery and colonialism, violence and sexism. He just laughed at us. He asked the two Americans “Is there either one of you who will say that your Declaration of Independence is not good?”
I’ve never forgotten this conversation, although I have not seen most of the participants in many years. I was thinking of it when I wrote the section in _A Nation of Farmers_ where Aaron and I attempt to address the fact that we’ve invoked Jefferson and the founding of America – and that that invocation is fraught and troubling. By titling our book with Jefferson’s ideal of a nation of independent farmers, able to honestly judge the world around them, we were invoking America’s agrarian history and its ideals of freedom. But we were also invoking other parts of American history as well – we cannot help but do that, because every invocation of America’s founding is freighted with both the ideals and the realities.
In titling our book _A Nation of Farmers_ we seemed to be saying we stood with Jefferson in his debate with Hamilton over America’s future – agrarian vs. industrial. But only in apologetics can you pretend that debate was just about what America’s ideal was – Hamilton, much maligned on the left, was also an ardent Abolitionist who felt that industrialization and wage labor was the solution to the problem of slavery. Jefferson, on the other hand, was championing a way of life that in much of the nation depended heavily on enslaved labor. Neither Aaron nor I wanted to spend our time in apologetics for Jefferson as many historians and thinkers do – Thom Hartmann, for example, in his book _What Would Jefferson Do_ spends an enormous amount of time explaining why Jefferson just had to own slaves and how bad he felt about it. My own feeling is that this is simply apologetics – we know that Jefferson, setting himself with other men to as a great a challenge as the end of slavery, emerged victorious. At a minimum, we can say that Jefferson did not care enough about slavery to stop it, did not care enough even to free his slaves at his death as George Washington did.
And yet, we didn’t want to abandon Jefferson, or invocations of the American past. We didn’t want to leave out the foundational history of the US – what we wanted was to find some way to invoke what matters in it, while acknowledging its limitations. We didn’t want to leave out the history of America – even though the Constitution and Declaration of independence, as historian Sheldon Wolin points out, had nothing to do with any small farmer or independent shopkeeper. They did not write them. They did not sign them. Much less did any woman, an African-American, any Native American write them, consult on them, sign and endorse them. Each of these has in its literal text, what Sojurner Truth rightly called “a little weasel.” And yet along with the weasel is something else.
In that conversation with other students of history, all of us, when confronting the shameful parts of our nation’s history had the tendency to overcompensate for the past of explaining away the bad with the good, to over-respond with iconoclasm. Each of us, when confronted with the evils done in our nations’ names – often to the ancestors of someone at that very table, found ourselves inclined, at first to dismiss our history as of a piece, as intolerably tainted. And yet, all of us confessed at some point or another, that we also loved and cared for the stories of our past – that was why we we wanted to understand them so badly, why we had focused our lives on that understanding – history, in the end, is the stories we tell ourselves. Each of us wanted to help frame them, even knowing that we can never get them right, because the history is not right.
But erasing the past does not soothe or solve problems either as the young scholar of South Africa pointed out. And iconoclasm alone was not enough for any of us – and I do not believe it is enough for anyone. Shattering false idols is useful work. It has to be done. But something else has to go in their place if you are to rest on anything other than a pile of rubble.
The false stories we learn have consequences – we can see those consequences in the way we live our present. Correcting the narratives of the past is good and honorable work. But telling new and true stories and making them into the kind of stories that thrill and inspire, that move and attach us to the best parts of our history, finding those hidden best parts and bringing them to the fore, without varnishing the bad and ill – and finding ways in our history to help us understand our persent – well, that’s the work of a life.
At the end of the dinner, I walked home with the man from South Africa – we were both a little the worse for drink and punchy from exhaustion, and on our way home, he told me that he had liked best of the two I recited “Barbara Frietchie.” He liked this part:
Barbara Frietchie’s work is o’er,
And the Rebel rides on his raids nor more.
Honor to her! and let a tear
Fall, for her sake, on Stonewalls’ bier.
This, he said, was what he was talking about – the way to reconcile with the past and between the partisans of pasts – the reconciliation from apartheid was the central project of his country for a long time, he observed, and the next step was to divine how this history can take his country into its future. I said in the idiom of Boston, the city we were walking through, that some people say you can’t get theah from heah, but in this case, we are going “theah” whether we like it or not. And so we are, and taking our stories with us.
Happy Fourth of July for them that’s celebrating!