Origin stories matter. They not only define our past. They also shape the way we view ourselves today.
If, for instance, you believe the American Revolution was fought to establish freedom and liberty, you may consider yourself a citizen of humankind’s greatest experiment in self-government.
If, on the other hand, you view the American founding through the lens of White supremacy and slavery, a different story emerges, one promoted by the New York Times’ 1619 Project, a subject of a recent episode of History As It Happens podcast.
In the past week, Americans marked the anniversaries of two major events that hold different places in the common memory. One evoked feelings of honor and pride, the other shame and revulsion. June 6 was the 77th anniversary of the D-Day invasion; May 31 was the centenary of the Tulsa race massacre, one of the most violent acts of domestic terrorism in U.S. history.
But unlike D-Day, the Tulsa massacre had been largely forgotten until recent efforts succeeded in drawing attention to its relevance in a nation still grappling with a legacy of racial injustice.
Tom Hanks, the actor and filmmaker who has produced some heart-pounding historical dramas, penned an essay in the New York Times arguing “The truth about Tulsa, and the repeated violence by some white Americans against Black Americans, was systematically ignored, perhaps because it was regarded as too honest, too painful a lesson for our young white ears.”
In the latest episode of History As It Happens, Northwestern University historian Leslie Harris says, “It’s really necessary to understand the ways people were divided in the past because it can tell us a lot about what we are dealing with now.”
The murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis policeman a year ago once again propelled the issue of racism to the forefront of American discussion. Some sought to confront the problem by pushing to change school curricula to include critical race theory. That prompted a backlash, as several Republican-led state legislatures passed bills banning CRT from classrooms.
“The backlash does concern me,” Ms. Harris said. “It makes people more uncomfortable than they need to be when confronting these issues… History can be a place where we look at how our ancestors dealt with some of the same issues we are dealing with today.”
In early 2020, Harris feared a backlash to the 1619 Project when she wrote an essay in Politico criticizing some of its errors while also chiding its critics’ “worldview that consistently ignores and distorts the role of African Americans and race in our history in order to present White people as all powerful and solely in possession to the keys of equality, freedom and democracy.”
Is it possible to honestly confront the difficult parts of our history without distorting the facts or making enemies of one another? What does critical race theory actually mean? Listen to Ms. Harris tackle those and other questions in this episode of History As It Happens.