In this column distributed by the Elon University Writers Syndicate, Professor of English Rosemary Haskell looks at how new explorations of history, such as the 1619 Project and new books on World War II and the Alamo are challenging our understanding of the past. The column was published in the Burlington Times-News, Greensboro News & Record and the Greenville Daily Reflector.
By Rosemary Haskell
The New York Times’s 1619 Project produced big reader reaction by re-centering our national origin story on the first arrival of Black African slaves here. Nikole Hannah-Jones’s introductory essay fired particularly hot discussion by claiming that the 1776 rebellion was triggered by the desire to maintain slavery in the face of perceived growing abolitionism in Britain.
No matter where historians land on the controversial “slavery motivation” position, since diluted by the New York Times, Hannah-Jones and the Project’s other authors have helped Americans by reminding us that we are on a shared search for the truth, however unsettling that search may prove.
My own most recent jarring encounter with the past occurred as I read “Stalin’s War: A New History of World War II” by Sean McMeekin. As a casual reader interested in World War II, I find that McMeekin’s vigorous argument significantly darkens the rosy view I had of my heroes Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. McMeekin slams FDR, and to a lesser extent Churchill, as naïve and sentimental dupes for providing Soviet dictator and mass murderer Josef Stalin with so much free and re-directed lend-lease swag between 1941 and 1945, with so many open doors to Western intelligence, as he pursued his own territorial and ideological goals.
McMeekin, indeed, examines the whole of World War II from Stalin’s perspective, re-tinting old pictures of the “Good War” and its much-lionized western chiefs.
Among other things, he depicts the Soviets’ battles with Hitler, won at the price of horrendous Russian military and civilian casualties, as cogs in the machinery of Stalin’s own imperial policies. Mao’s 1949 Communist triumph over Chinese Nationalist Chiang Kai-shek is presented as another successful outcome of this game plan.
American and British readers, particularly, may close “Stalin’s War” wondering why “we” did so much to pre-strengthen Stalin’s geopolitical and intelligence hand in the early Cold War and so little to save the peoples of eastern Europe, notably the Poles, from Red Communist clutches.
Reviewers of “Stalin’s War” naturally assess both its accuracy and its interpretive emphases with predictably mixed conclusions. One reviewer notes that McMeekin has now solidified his position in the ranks of the “right-wing” historians.
Sound familiar? It’s the same type of political criticism directed at the 1619 Project, which has certainly tweaked professional historians’ ears. Actually, the claim by Hannah-Jones about slavery as the motivation for rebellion against the British isn’t new. Ibram X. Kendi implies it in “Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America” and that position is more definitely stated in Jason Reynolds’s 2020 “remix” of Kendi’s book, “Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You.” Kendi, an academic historian, and Reynolds, a novelist, have flown lower under the radar of right-wing critics while the Black Lives Matter protests and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s very belated, and now rejected, offer of a tenured faculty position have kept Hannah-Jones in the spotlight.
She and the 1619 Project should stay in that spotlight. And we must be smarter readers, understanding that all accounts of the past depend variously on analysis of complex causes and effects, on source selection, on the quality of inference, and on the relative emphasis given to events and people. All histories are arguments, and some may turn polemical, particularly the “popular” versions in the 1619 Project. Hannah-Jones’s essay, particularly, should be read rhetorically, as a gauntlet thrown down, to challenge our status quo.
Next to “Stalin’s War” on the library’s recent acquisitions shelf is “Forget the Alamo: The Rise and Fall of an American Myth” by Bryan Burrough, Chris Tomlinson and Jason Stanford. Another attempt to resituate the past in our mind’s eye, the book traces the the changing and still contested versions of the 1836 battle that still provoke strong reactions, especially in Texas.
All these texts strengthen a culture where inquiry and re-thinking may flourish.
It is said that when those born with no sight or very impaired sight have their vision “restored,” they actually cannot “see.” They have to learn to deploy their new perceptual abilities gradually, to interpret previously un-encountered phenomena.
I like to think that “new” histories are not so much attempts to restore sight to the previously blind as they are new instruments of perception that we will gradually learn to use to attain a view of the world more nuanced, enriched and complete. We have not necessarily been wrong in our understandings of the past, but we have perhaps, in some places, been only partially-sighted.
Views expressed in this column are the author’s own and not necessarily those of Elon University.