History to the Rescue


Drew Gilpin Faust is the President and the Lincoln Professor of History at Harvard. She is the author, most recently, of "This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War." Her essay in this issue is drawn from a speech she delivered in November at Duke to commemorate the one ­hundredth birthday of the late historian John Hope Franklin.

... Recently, two powerful new advocates have taken up Franklin’s call for history to come to America’s rescue, echoing many of his observations and insights for a new time and across new and different media. These two twenty-first-century black intellectuals are outside the formal precincts of the academy, yet speak explicitly about why historical scholarship and understanding must play a central part in addressing the tragedies of race in American life. They offer us new, yet in many senses familiar, ways of approaching a moment when it seems possible that both history and policy might change.

Nearly a half-century younger than Franklin, Bryan Stevenson, who grew up in segregated southern Delaware, remembers saving his money for a first youthful book purchase: From Slavery to Freedom. Stevenson’s life and work reflect the historical sensibility that characterized Franklin’s understanding of the American present. In a TED Talk that has been viewed more than two and a half million times, in a best-selling book, and in a life dedicated to the pursuit of equal justice, Stevenson has joined in summoning history to the rescue.

Before the Civil War, we as a nation created a narrative of racial difference to legitimize slavery, he explains, and we convinced ourselves of its truth. As a result, instead of genuinely ending slavery, we helped it evolve into a succession of new forms of unfreedom, culminating in today’s mass incarceration. “Burdened” by a past of racism and cruelty, “we don’t like to talk about our history,” he observes. We have been “unwilling to commit ourselves” to a necessary “process of truth and reconciliation,” so we have not succeeded in transcending our past, in confronting and abandoning its assumptions and inequities. We have been too “celebratory” about the civil rights movement; we “congratulated ourselves too quickly” that the ugliness of racism was eliminated when it continued to infuse our institutions and our attitudes.

Aside from his teaching at NYU, Stevenson’s day job is directing the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) in Montgomery, Alabama—suing to stay executions of innocent prisoners, persuading the Supreme Court that children should not be tried as adults and sentenced to death or life imprisonment. But he has made himself a historian as well. The EJI recently issued a detailed report on the slave trade in nineteenth-century Montgomery—part of a project its website describes as focused on developing a more informed understanding of America’s racial history and how it relates to contemporary challenges. EJI believes that reconciliation with our nation’s difficult past cannot be achieved without truthfully confronting history.

EJI joined with the Alabama Historical Commission to sponsor three historical markers in downtown Montgomery memorializing the domestic slave trade in which the city played such a prominent part. Now Stevenson has embarked on a new project to erect markers at the sites of the thousands of lynchings that terrorized blacks in the post–Civil War South.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, nearly sixteen years younger than Bryan Stevenson, was born six decades after John Hope Franklin. Martin Luther King was seven years dead; much of the hope of the civil rights movement had evaporated; racism, bitterness, and a combination of militancy and despair prevailed. Coates’s father, a former member of the Black Panther Party, was an initially self-taught intellectual who became an archivist of black history and created a press to share the record of those of African descent from ancient Egypt to Marcus Garvey to Attica. Paul Coates grounded his son “in history and struggle,” lessons that would make Franklin’s work seem a bit old-fashioned, conciliatory, perhaps even compromising.

It was Malcolm X who became Ta-Nehisi’s hero. “I loved Malcolm because Malcolm never lied…. He was unconcerned with making the people who believed they were white comfortable in their belief.” Coates resisted white tools or rules. And he would flee the academy—dropping out of Howard without completing a degree. But he too embraced history. “My reclamation,” he wrote, “would be accomplished, like Malcolm’s, through books, through my own study and exploration.” Perhaps, he mused, “I might write something of consequence someday.”

It would seem he has done just that. On the second page of his recent meditation on race, Between the World and Me, Coates proclaims, “The answer is American history.” His own deep immersion in the past—“I have now morphed into a Civil War buff,” he confesses—served as epiphany and impetus: “I could not have understood 20th-century discrimination without understanding its 19th-century manifestations.” ...

Read entire article at NY Review of Books

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