Historians of Color Are Revolutionizing the Narrative of ‘American Exceptionalism’

Historians in the News
tags: Black History



David Levering Lewis, emeritus professor of history at NYU, has written nine books; has received the Pulitzer, Bancroft, and Parkman prizes; and hopes to follow his forthcoming biography of Wendell Willkie with a book on slavery and the making of America.

I find myself these days on the cusp of despairing over the cruel mischief long wrought by the paradigm known as “American exceptionalism.” I ask myself, why should I not conclude that what has been exceptional about our exceptionalist national narrative are the historic exceptions to it—notably, people of color?

Down the long corridor of interrupted progress from slavery to freedom, Africans in America have been unique victims and unimpeachable critics of a nation corrupted at its inception by a political economy anchored to race. Manumitted by war, politically empowered under Reconstruction, betrayed, disenfranchised, and re-subjugated during the 50-year nadir of Plessy v. Ferguson, African-Americans emerged from World War II a national people, urbanized, GI Bill–literate, occupationally diverse, but a people still forced and favored by history to pursue the role of redeemers of their nation’s founding egalitarian dogma.

Their great era began with the 1960s. If ever a time of epic breakthrough belonged to a single people, the racial, abortion, gender, immigration, gay, and handicapped rights channeled from the 1960s and ’70s were black people’s gifts to the nation. Even so, yet another great American deception for people of color was already in the making, as C. Vann Woodward and John Hope Franklin famously forecast: a Second Reconstruction that ended, like the first, with hard-won social and economic progress undermined and reversed by a triumphant Reaganism determined to nullify what survived of the New Deal, until most Americans finally recoiled from the consequences of their own electoral folly.

Against a bleak backdrop of indebtedness, unemployment, and rapid decline in traditional jobs, along with the non-affordability of the essentials of health and education, 53 percent of the electorate wagered in 2008 that it could deny race by affirming its non-importance and thereby audaciously reinvigorate the exceptionalist narrative. As the Obama presidency ends, with much to its credit, the vision of a postracial reset that defined its historic debut seems belied by worsening disparities that are almost irrevocably color-coded, by Supreme Court majorities disingenuously mocking African-American and Latino voting rights, by a reborn nativism more virulent than its mid-nineteenth-century parent, and by criminal-justice-system irregularities perceived as outrageous enough to spark corrective uprisings from Ferguson to Staten Island to Baltimore.

It is certain that when this decade ends, it will have confirmed W.E.B. Du Bois’s grim prophecy about America’s everlasting racism. Can historians help, and if so, then how do we answer the Chernyshevskian question—what is to be done? In Black Is a Country: Race and the Unfinished Struggle for Democracy, New York University historian Nikhil Pal Singh asks, “What if the political lesson of the long civil rights era is that we advance equality only by continually passing through a politics of race and by refusing the notion of a definitive ‘beyond’ race?” Moderately good news are those definite signs of a historical revisionism that upends the hoary master narrative of Herrenvolk democracy, its Jeffersonian laissez-faire matched with Hamiltonian finance, its unrivaled industrial takeoff, its robust middle classes gloriously replenished by hardworking immigrants, its eschatology of white merit. ...




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