On the one hand, it’s heartening that Republicans recently voted to make Juneteenth a new federal holiday. On the other hand, with all the Lost Cause handwringing during the Trump years, one wonders why.
In a recent Slate interview, historian Matt Karp explains his theory. (Thanks, W.H., for the link!) Karp thinks it’s the latest episode in a strategic meta-narrative shift on the part of Republicans. Quoting Karp,
“The right’s support for Juneteenth signifies that they are investing more energy in claiming credit for emancipation. Rather than downplaying or diminishing or cynically undermining, decentering the importance of slavery altogether, they’re saying, Yes, it was terrible—and we fixed it.”
This strategy is not so new for America – we’ve embraced our history as a succession of Triumphs all along. “We” beat the British to establish a new nation, “conceived in liberty.” “We” achieved our Manifest Destiny by claiming all the land from the Atlantic to the Pacific. “We” helped our allies in Western Europe win two world wars, and then won the Cold War, establishing the U.S. of A. as the world’s only Superpower.
As Karp summarizes: “We beat Nazism, we beat communism, we beat slavery.”
And much of this is non-partisan, but there are partisan Triumphs too, as when some white liberals thought Obama’s election as president marked an end to racism. (Oops.)
The Triumph genre is especially powerful. It’s structured as a Mission (progress toward a goal), followed by a decisive achievement. We won! Just like with any work of fiction, it’s that closure at the end that feels so satisfying. So there are two emotional payoffs: We get to feel good about ourselves, because our people did something great, and we get to put it behind us, as something now settled for all time.
It’s ironic, too – sometimes the very people who insist that we’re only responsible for the mistakes we’ve made personally and directly can turn around and bask in the glory of people who lived before they were born. If those of us living today get to take credit for the achievements of our people in the past, doesn’t that also open us up to responsibility for the mistakes our people made?
Which brings us to the current fuss over “critical race theory.” The idea that textbooks should only teach the win-win-win storyline I’ve described is at odds with the reality that there are groups within the United States whose stories have gone differently. Manifest Destiny is an obvious example – the drive to expand U.S. political control over the sweep of the continent, and to encourage our ancestors (mine, certainly) to settle these supposedly empty lands ignored the fact that the lands were already settled and already belonged to other people. Extending statehood across the continent didn’t solve that “problem,” it created new ones.
Critical race theory acknowledges that the people of today’s Native nations have valid stories to tell, as do today’s Black Americans, today’s Mexican and Puerto Rican and Cuban Americans, today’s Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, etc., Americans, as well as today’s Anglo Americans, today’s Irish Americans, today’s Italian Americans, and so on. We all have our perspectives, and lumping us all into One True Story means the storytellers with the best access to the media are deciding what that story will be.
And if that’s a story about how we’re all living happily ever after, that’s the “best” of all, right?, because it means we can feel good about ourselves. There’s no more work to be done.
Do we want to be like 21st century China, where there’s one authorized national Story, and no need for all those other voices? No need for democracy?
On Friday, a friend of mine was telling me that even for fiction storytelling, our idea that there’s one correct version is historically recent and not likely to last. There’s so much fan fiction out there, from Harry Potter to Star Trek and beyond. You can read about Pride and Prejudice with zombies, or with dragons, or from the servants’ perspective, or hook up our heroine’s irritatingly pedantic middle sister with Victor Frankenstein.
In other words, we are irrepressible storytellers. Even stories that “ended” are given sequels and prequels and other spinoffs. So rather than the feel-good meta-narrative about how we always win-win-win, let’s remember that there are other stories happening in parallel with our own, stories that add nuance and corrections and new opportunities to do well. And let’s remember there are other storytellers out there, beyond the officially approved textbooks, and that they’re the best judges of which stories are most meaningful for them.