We’re whitewashing the history of our founding, says Leslie Harris

Historians in the News
tags: George Washington, George Washington Book Prize, Leslie Harris

Leslie M. Harris is professor of history and African American studies at Northwestern University and most recently the author of “The Greatest City in the World? Slavery in New York in the Age of Hamilton,” in Renee Romano and Claire Potter, "Historians on Hamilton: How a Blockbuster Musical Is Restaging America's Past."

Tonight, the George Washington Book Prize of $50,000 will be awarded to Kevin J. Hayes for his book “George Washington, a Life in Books,” one of seven finalists selected as “the past year’s best-written works on the nation’s founding era.” Although over four decades of research on the history of slavery, race and gender have rejuvenated the history of the late-colonial and revolutionary periods, the list of finalists was notable for neglecting books on the place of women and nonwhites in expanding the white male founders’ vision of freedom.

This is disappointing but unfortunately not surprising. It reflects the persistent struggle to complicate the history of our founding era. We still strive to craft an understanding that both acknowledges the prominent role that white men had in shaping the rightly celebrated documents of that era — the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights — and the ways in which many others worked to expand the possibilities of those documents for themselves and for the nation.

Book prizes are a fraught and misleading enterprise. In fact, the Washington Prize’s decision to expand its list of finalists from three to seven in the last few years, and to present these finalists as a “go-to reading list” even as the prize honors one book above all, reflects the fact that few books emerge as clear “winners” in these competitions. But this year’s list of finalists undermines that good intention to bring a wider range of historical material to a broad general audience.

Perhaps in an effort to protect the legacy of George Washington, this year’s list ignores works that address the complicated relationship of the first president and his contemporaries with slavery and enslaved people, native people and women during the revolutionary era. By focusing on the experiences of whites and, largely, elites, the list ignores books that explore the limits on freedom and equality that existed at the founding of our country. ...

Last year, it seemed that a turning point occurred when a two-year exhibition on slavery at Washington’s Mount Vernon was launched. The current tours of the permanent exhibitions in the mansion and its well-preserved outbuildings substantially discuss the slave labor necessary to uphold the Washingtons’ lifestyle.

But the George Washington Prize committee’s decision not to include two new serious works on slavery and the Founding Fathersand Founding Motherson their “must read” list reveals how deeply protected the mythology around the Founding Fathers remains. ...

Read entire article at The Washington Post

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