It started, or it seemed to start, at a school board meeting in Loundoun County, Virginia. During the public comment section of the meeting, people lined up to declare their opposition to the teaching of Critical Race Theory in their schools. People were angry and they inspired others in the room to be angry, too, even those who’d never heard of Critical Race Theory. The next month, the crowd got larger and more heated. They accused the school district of installing racist curricula and teaching children to be ashamed of being white. They aligned Critical Race Theory with Marxism and Socialism and swore to fight it with their last breaths. Similar fights broke out in school board meetings across the nation, and lest you think this is a Southern or Midwestern problem, Westchester County school boards have been inundated with the same furious rhetoric. The chair of the school district where I live was threatened with violence for trying to bring reason to a dangerously angry crowd in my own home town. A video of a woman in Carmel, NY, the town where Community Church owned a retreat house until recently, went viral displaying her well-mannered critique of Critical Race Theory and the 1619 project at a school board meeting, demonstrating her conviction that social justice warriors and black lives matter activists are telling her young children that they are racist and shameful because they are white.
Critical Race Theory is, or was, an obscure but interesting idea a law professor had in the 1980s. He asked his Harvard Law students to critique each law on how it helped or hurt people of color. It was a pedagogical tool that wasn’t used, as far as he knows, much outside the school, although he hoped it would give lawyers and those crafting new laws, a lens for understanding the American legal system. It’s an academic framework suggesting that racism is systemic, devoid of personality, and embedded into our legal system and institutions.
No one had heard much about it until spring, 2021, just about one year ago, when a conservative pundit started talking on Fox News about the conspiracy of teaching Critical Race Theory in our schools. Between March and June, 2021, Critical Race Theory was mentioned more than 2,000 times on Fox News. People were being told that Critical Race Theory was being taught in their schools and they needed to stop it and save their children.
Critical Race Theory is often partnered with the 1619 Project created by Nikole Hannah-Jones, the multi-award winning journalist. Her ground-breaking work de-centering the white story in our history and instead placing the Black experience at the center of the narrative has transformed the way millions of Americans understand our past and present. Here in New York, we like to talk about the landing of the Mayflower in 1620 as the beginning. In Virginia they talk about Jamestown, a colony that started in 1607, and if you live in Florida, you’re going to cite St. Augustine, founded in 1565. Hannah-Jones starts in 1619 when the White Lion arrived in Virginia carrying enslaved people.
After her ground-breaking work of expanding our story, Hannah-Jones was hired by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to teach journalism. Having gone through the process, she was formally recommended for tenure which the Board of Trustees reneged, citing unambiguously, her work “rewriting history” and promoting racism in our schools. The public outcry both on campus and around the country was powerful, and the offer was back on the table when Hanna-Jones left Chapel Hill for a prestigious appointment at Howard University.
The 1619 Project marked the 400th anniversary of Black people being brought to this land in chains. It was a podcast and series of articles published by the New York Times. It’s since become a book and curriculum. The project was the creation of a new American narrative that decentered white people, placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the center of the story. Before this groundbreaking work, Black people were rarely mentioned in the popular telling of our history, other than the off-handed mention that some of our revered leaders owned slaves. And that’s how it was said- “owned slaves” - as if the people were inherently slaves and Washington, Jefferson and Madison were just their owners rather than the people who caused their state of enslavement. For the most part, we rarely talk about Black people in American history before the Civil War. Even then, we focus on a handful of people we see as extraordinary like Fredrick Douglas and Harriet Tubman, while ignoring the life experience of millions of people. We pick up the story again during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and then during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Otherwise, the American story is told as a white story with people of color playing a minor or supporting role.
Americans tend to think about our history as generally good, something to be proud of, a force for hope in the world. We excuse our heroes for being slaveholders without recognizing that those men couldn’t have been who they were without human trafficking or the destruction of families, without the exploitation of Black labor, labor guaranteed through torture. Our beloved founders made their living by enslaving people. This isn’t to say that they should be dismissed, or cancelled. It’s to say that the story is larger and more complex than we’ve been comfortable with and it’s time to expand the American capacity for Truth.
The culture war has become a fight for the American Story. Nikole Hannah-Jones notes that when she writes about abuses of living people in her investigative journalism, she doesn’t get the same level of pushback as when she writes about people who are long dead. The fight over our history is fiercer than the fight over living people’s current actions. Why would that be? Why are people howling at school board meetings, terrified that their children are learning American history from something other than the white perspective? Evidence suggests that Americans are willfully opposed to grappling with our own history. Why? George F. Will, the conservative commentator, wrote in the Washington Post last year that the 1619 Project was intended to “displace the nation’s actual founding, thereby draining from America’s story the moral majesty of the first modern nation’s Enlightenment precepts...” He goes on to center white people in the abolition and civil rights movements, ultimately dismissing the entire 1619 Project. He wasn’t alone. Five historians wrote a detailed letter with their “reservations”, one of which is that the entire project was driven by ideology, as if centering Blackness is more ideological than centering whiteness.
Why the fight for our history? I think it’s because we find hope in the narrative we’ve all been taught. The story we have been told and have repeated again and again, is one of triumph. We know that we’ve stumbled, that not everyone was perfect, that not everything happened as quickly as we wish, but ultimately, we are a fine country, a moral country, an enviable country and in the end, everything always works out for the best. The traditional American story notes off-handedly that the slave trade was part of our economic system, but then we ended it. There were some struggles, mostly in the South, but then we all came together for an exciting, non-violent movement and we came to our senses, a fact we, white people, can prove that because we, white people, elected a Black president. Barack Obama was our absolution, and with him, we were done. Everything worked out in the end. And, 2008 was the end. We are now post-history. If you’re talking about race, you’re just causing trouble.
The questions around who tells our story, or how our story is told, have the potential to dethrone us. We are the City on the Hill, the moral compass for all the world. If we don’t deserve that status, if we weren’t chosen by God, who are we? No, that’s not a question we’re going to ask. We’re Americans. We know our power. And we’ve written a story to prove it.
There’s so much privilege in being the people who choose the story. The McMinn County Board of Education banned the book Maus in a 10-0 vote not, they say, because it confronts anti-Semitism but because they want to protect children from the cartoon image of a naked mouse. In Katy, Texas they’re removing books that talk about racism, all written by Black authors for Black children for the stated reason that these books teach critical race theory, although none of the authors had ever heard that term before last year. Other recent targets are All Boys Aren’t Blue, Lawn Boy and Toni Morrisons’s The Bluest Eye, all about race, gender and sexuality. Other books currently banned include Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Fahrenheit 451 which, ironically, is about book banning, The Hate U Give, The Color Purple, George Orwell’s Animal Farm, and the Harry Potter series with one pastor telling his congregants not to let their children read the books out loud – and I’m not kidding here – because the spells are real.
Wanting to limit or control what people know and think about is as old as human history, but in a nation which institutionalized free speech, and religion, and a free press right from the beginning, this practice seems particularly egregious and, frankly, un-American. Or, maybe, it’s as American as it gets, we just don’t want to admit it. The narrative we’ve been telling ourselves and teaching our children so they are sure to tell it to themselves and teach it to their children is that the story of the white people is the whole story. No one else, no other experiences, are relevant. The “we” in our stories is always white people. The heroes are white. The victories are white. Even the losses are white. The story has belonged to white people from the time Columbus landed and declared himself the founder of two continents on which 75 million people lived. Only white stories matter.
As a student of history, I know well that history is a series of stories, not a comprehensive collection of facts. This nation’s story has been told so many times we have trouble imagining ourselves in any other way. We embed the story into our cultural consciousness so deeply, we have trouble seeing it. There’s a 4th grade assignment in every school across the nation. Children are told to go home and find out who their ancestors were going back 3 or 4 generations and to find out what country they came from. It’s often part of the assignment to then research that country and to present something about it to the class. We’re so close to the European immigrant experience, we can’t see the privilege of narrative that assignment assumes.
Being made invisible is oppressive. Having your story forgotten, your ancestors lost, your history marginalized or neglected completely, is generational abuse.
It’s also terribly limiting for everyone, not just those people whose story isn’t told. Because, really, there’s only one story. None of us live outside of this single web of existence. We have one story, but we’ve chosen only to tell a part of it. And the reasons aren’t a mystery. The parents at the school board meetings are clear. They are angry, they say, because their children are being taught to be ashamed. I can tell you, as a parent, as a person raising a white boy, a child who is going to become a white man, giving him the full story has only empowered him. He’s never expressed shame but instead he’s demonstrated resolve to become part of a new story, one that creates a world better than the one he’s inheriting.
This isn’t someone else’s story. This is his story. It’s our story. It’s our national story. We have one story and it includes St. Augustine and Jamestown and The Mayflower and The White Lion. It includes Virginia Dare, the first white child born and William Tucker, the first Black child born on this land. It includes Elisha Graves Otis the white inventor of the elevator and Alexander Miles, the Black inventor who made it automatic rather than manual. It includes Katherine Johnson, the NASA mathematician without whom Alan Shepard’s space travel would not have been possible. It includes all of us and limiting the story minimizes both our brokenness and our victories.
We cannot step into our greatness without the telling of our full and rich and tawdry and violent and formidable and triumphant and complicated and redemptive story. We are the amalgam of it all, of all our ancestors, of all their immorality, of all their brilliance and foresight and work and pain- all of it. It is who we are and embracing it, claiming the narrative, telling our story in its fullness, is the next step to our collective liberation.