Historian Annette Gordon-Reed: Jan. 6 was a "turning point" in American history

Pulitzer-winning Harvard historian on the battle for the past and the fragile state of American democracy

By Chauncey DeVega
Published July 12, 2021 6:00AM (EDT)
A supporter of US President Donald Trump holds a Confederate flag outside the Senate Chamber during a protest after breaching the US Capitol in Washington, DC, January 6, 2021. - The demonstrators breeched security and entered the Capitol as Congress debated the 2020 presidential election Electoral Vote Certification. (SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)
A supporter of US President Donald Trump holds a Confederate flag outside the Senate Chamber during a protest after breaching the US Capitol in Washington, DC, January 6, 2021. - The demonstrators breeched security and entered the Capitol as Congress debated the 2020 presidential election Electoral Vote Certification. (SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)

In the past six months, since the events of Jan. 6, I have been meditating a great deal on William Faulkner's wisdom and warning: "The past is never dead. It's not even past."

American history is a puzzle, full of contradictions and complexity. But some people, instead of studying this history so as to make better decisions in the present and future, choose to take a hammer to the puzzle. They smash it and then hammer the pieces back together so as to fit their self-serving lies and distortions.

Consider the moral panic created by the white right against "critical race theory." Of course, as deployed by right-wing propagandists, "critical race theory" possesses little if any resemblance to the epistemological framework of the same name. For the white right it's a term that means everything and nothing, a convenient vessel into which they can pour white rage, white fear, white victimology and white supremacy in an ongoing attack on multiracial American democracy.  

Writing at the Atlantic, historian Ibram X. Kendi summarizes this:

The United States is not in the midst of a "culture war" over race and racism. The animating force of our current conflict is not our differing values, beliefs, moral codes, or practices. The American people aren't divided. The American people are being divided.

Republican operatives have buried the actual definition of critical race theory: "a way of looking at law's role platforming, facilitating, producing, and even insulating racial inequality in our country," as the law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, who helped coin the term, recently defined it. Instead, the attacks on critical race theory are based on made-up definitions and descriptors. …

Right-wing hysteria about "critical race theory" is not happening in a vacuum. It is part of a much larger project by the Jim Crow Republicans, neofascists and the broader white right to legitimize a new type of American apartheid in which nonwhites — especially Black people — do not have equal rights with white "conservatives" and others loyal to their cause.

This crisis of democracy has forced questions of history and public memory to the forefront of America's struggle against neofascism and authoritarianism.

In an essay for the New York Times, historian Timothy Snyder warns of the threat to democracy posed by Republican attempts to whitewash American history — quite literally — through Orwellian laws that ban the teaching of "critical race theory":

This spring, memory laws arrived in America. Republican state legislators proposed dozens of bills designed to guide and control American understanding of the past. As of this writing, five states (Idaho, Iowa, Tennessee, Texas and Oklahoma) have passed laws that direct and restrict discussions of history in classrooms. The Department of Education of a sixth (Florida) has passed guidelines with the same effect. Another 12 state legislatures are still considering memory laws. …

Democracy requires individual responsibility, which is impossible without critical history. It thrives in a spirit of self-awareness and self-correction. Authoritarianism, on the other hand, is infantilizing: We should not have to feel any negative emotions; difficult subjects should be kept from us. Our memory laws amount to therapy, a talking cure. In the laws' portrayal of the world, the words of white people have the magic power to dissolve the historical consequences of slavery, lynchings and voter suppression. Racism is over when white people say so.

We start by saying we are not racists. Yes, that felt nice. And now we should make sure that no one says anything that might upset us. The fight against racism becomes the search for a language that makes white people feel good. The laws themselves model the desired rhetoric. We are just trying to be fair. We behave neutrally. We are innocent.

Ultimately, these fights about the past are fronts in a larger war about the present and future of American society. In an effort to better understand these struggles over history, power, memory and the color line in the Age of Trump and beyond, I recently spoke with historian Annette Gordon-Reed.

She is the Carl M. Loeb University Professor at Harvard University and the author of several books, including "Thomas Jefferson And Sally Hemings: An American Controversy" (which was awarded the National Book Award) and the Pulitzer Prize–winning "The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family." Gordon-Reed was also awarded the Pulitzer Prize in history in 2009. Her new book is "On Juneteenth."

In this conversation, Gordon-Reed explains how Donald Trump's coup attempt and his followers' attack on the Capitol represent a much older struggle in America over multiracial democracy and "white freedom." She warns that the events of Jan. 6 pose a fundamental threat to the future of the American republic and democratic experiment.

Gordon-Reed also discusses how African Americans, from slavery to freedom and beyond, have been stalwart defenders of the best principles of American democracy, yet find themselves still fighting against white people who want to deny them their civil rights. She locates the attacks on "critical race theory" relative to deeper societal questions about white guilt, evasions of reality and responsibility, historical memory and white supremacy.

How do we begin to understand the events of Jan. 6 within the larger history of America's multiracial democracy?  

It shows the predicament that we are in as a country. African Americans have from the very beginning been the people who tried to make the promise of America real. They believed in the words of the Declaration of Independence. African Americans have tried to uphold those words, in the face of other people who did not seem to take those words and the values as seriously as they did.

African Americans have long tried to uphold the values of the Declaration and the notion of equality in the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments, which brought Black people into citizenship and represent the idea that people should be treated as equal citizens. Yet there are people right now here in the United States who do not take those parts of the Constitution seriously. They are imagined as "true" Americans, and are given the benefit of the doubt when, for example, they attack the Capitol building.

It is an obvious juxtaposition, but if Trump's attack force had been Muslim or Black the narrative would be totally different.

They would have been mowed down. They would not have gotten inside the Capitol building. Historians cannot predict the future, but Jan. 6 is going to be looked at as potentially a turning point in the country's history. If there is no proper reckoning, then the United States is facing serious problems. The whole concept of democracy and the republic are at stake.

Why are so many (white) people upset by basic facts about the color line and its centrality to American history?

Guilt. That is why there are people who don't want to talk about race or slavery or related topics in schools because white children will supposedly feel upset. That is the heart of white identity politics. The idea that a child is going to look back at something that happened in the 1730s and say, "Oh, those are white people. Those are my people, and I must defend those people." That same child will then supposedly feel bad because challenging things are being said about them.

In practice it means that Black people's feelings do not matter. We want to tell the story of our ancestors. We have to keep quiet so that white people do not feel bad.

There is a choice being made there. They could easily repudiate what happened in the past and say, "We're going to do something different and move forward." But instead, the response is to be defensive. It puts white people and whiteness at the center of the universe, and everybody else is just peripheral to that. Only their feelings count. There are some white people who truly feel that way.

There is the common deflection that teaching the real history of the country and the color line is "divisive." Mitch McConnell recently used that language.

It is only divisive if Mitch McConnell and others who feel that way choose to stand with the people in the past. He could easily say, "Yes, that happened. It was wrong. We'll do better. And we want to chart a different course." But some of them are still very much wedded to that past. History is not just the study and discussion of things that make you feel good. That is not real history.

What is at stake in these current debates over history and public memory?

In the case of the Confederacy, it means the "Lost Cause," and how those who sympathize with it have never given up on the idea of white supremacy, or that Blacks should be second-class citizens. It also means that the interests of Black people should be subordinate to those of white people. With the Confederate statues and what they represent, including the "honor" of Confederate soldiers and so on, that is a way of publicly stating that the Confederacy will never be defeated, that its defenders have not repudiated the past and that they have not changed. Ultimately, that is what is at stake for them.

That past was a country built on chattel slavery. For Black people, these debates are about citizenship. The people who tried to preserve a system of slavery lose the Civil War and then get statues. That is an act of white supremacy. It is sending a message to Black Americans that you are not supposed to be comfortable here because this is "our" space.

Given the Republican Party and white right's assault on Black and brown people's voting rights and civil rights, didn't the Confederacy actually win the Civil War in the long run?

They seem to have won the cultural battle. Many neo-Confederates and those aligned with them or who otherwise share those values have never given up on the idea of white supremacy and a racial hierarchy with Black subordination. That seems to be what's happening now in America.

Growing up in Texas, I remember seeing a Confederate flag only occasionally. We would see the Texas flag and American flag together all the time. I was in Texas three or four years ago and I saw more Confederate flags on that trip than I'd seen in my entire childhood in the South. There's been a resurgence of militant whiteness. The Confederate flag represents that for many people. They are bold about it. To see a resurgence of the Confederacy is a worrisome thing.

How do you explain this moment of white rage? Is it as simple as a backlash against the Barack Obama?

That is certainly part of it. It is reminiscent of Reconstruction. Such a reaction tends to happen when people think that the culture is changing, and Obama's presidency represented clear evidence of that fact. What many people see as a dream other people see as a nightmare. In all, it is a reaction against a more inclusive society. The election of Barack Obama seems to have stunned many people, and these Confederate monuments symbolize a past that such people feel nostalgic for — a past where Blacks were second-class citizens.

Who owns the past? I am thinking specifically of these monuments but also, for example how some white people hold weddings and other festive gatherings at Southern plantations, places that were literally sites of torture, death, rape and other forms of misery for Black human property.

It is a constant battle about power. Whose memories are going to be ascendant? That is what is being fought over. These plantation weddings are an example of people who are tuning out the real meaning of what these plantations actually were in American history, in terms of chattel slavery. They want to control the past, but a past that is not a real past at all. It's just amazing to me that there are so many people who believe that we can talk about American history without talking about race.

Juneteenth is now a federal holiday. How do we balance symbolic and substantive politics? Through that lens, what does Juneteenth mean — and what does it not mean?

Juneteenth is important. But people either make things out of symbols or they do not. Juneteenth has the potential of starting a conversation, or continuing a conversation, about the issue of slavery and freedom, the nature of emancipation and voting. This directly connects to the present and the question of whether we are going to tolerate these measures that are designed to stop Black people and people of color more generally from voting.

Republicans and the white right have launched an all-out attack on "critical race theory" and the teaching of the truth about American history and society and the color line more generally. If this Orwellian crusade is victorious, what would the average person not know about Juneteenth and Texas history for example?

Many people probably would not know that Stephen F. Austin was explicitly a booster for the institution of slavery and thought that slavery was vital to the development of Texas. You might not know that people at the Alamo, including Travis and Bowie, had slaves and were slave traders. You cannot talk about the Republic of Texas without talking about slavery. The Texas constitution explicitly said that Black people could not be citizens.

And also that the war with Mexico was in many ways directly over slavery.

Texans were afraid that Mexico, which had outlawed slavery but gave them an exemption, would change its mind. Texas wanted to be part of the Cotton Empire that the South was hoping to build, which included Cuba and other parts of the Caribbean and elsewhere. To do that, they had to have slavery. You cannot understand Texas without knowing this history.

Americans just celebrated the first Fourth of July since the events of Jan. 6, as the Republicans and their allies are escalating their war on Black and brown people's right to vote. What does that holiday mean in this moment?

Everything old is new again. We are a young country and we're an even younger full democracy. The right to vote was not extended to Black people until the 1960s. That is only a few decades ago. The notion of multiracial American democracy is very new and very fragile, and people are still fighting about it. "We don't want Negro rule." That was being said by whites in the 19th century after the Civil War, when Black men got the vote — and that is where we are now.


Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a politics staff writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at Chaunceydevega.com. He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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