history and identity

Who we are is largely a product of our past. This is true for individuals, communities, nations, humanity as a whole... But our past isn’t everything.

I often wonder if, in the future, we’ll look back at today and label this an era of trauma. Of course there’s an overwhelming tendency to believe the times in which we’re living are worse than we’ll remember them to be in the future. But still, the past has power. The past must be continuously tended to if we are to move forward constructively.

Looking at America’s history, we can glimpse the immense difficulty and importance of grappling with a monstrous past. As a nation, we have much to learn about the connection between history and identity.

The scars of racism in America remain fresh today, with new scars continually being made. Confronting our past is messy. I’ve recently been pondering a likely-unpopular thought: what if racism isn’t so much a matter of good vs evil, but is itself filled with gradients of grey?

Racism and slavery have played a significant role in defining the corrupt soul of America today. But is it possible to observe this history without ascribing “good” and “bad” to every instance or circumstance? Is this even a worthy pursuit? Perhaps. Perhaps not.

The historian Edmund Morgan says that:

racially based slavery, rather than being a contradiction in a country that prided itself on freedom, made the freedom of white people possible. The system that put black people at the bottom of the social heap tamped down class divisions among whites.
— EDMUND MORGAN, AMERICAN SLAVERY, AMERICAN FREEDOM

It’s an illuminating point and one worth exploring. I feel that it should go without saying, but alas, in our current political state, the following seems necessary to say:

Ideas such as these need not be taken as a justification for evil. Entertaining, pondering and exploring this morally weighty notion is not inherently a justification for slavery. It is, rather, an embrace of a learning mindset.

We must be free to explore any idea, any line of thinking. Paradoxically, good ideas have the potential to shine brighter when in the presence of bad ideas. It is through knowing why an idea is bad that we come to truly understand why another one is better.

Robert E. Lee statue in Emancipation Park, Charlottesville, VA

[True, the world is not split between good ideas and bad ones. As I said before, there is more grey area here than many of us would like to imagine. But for simplicity’s sake, a deduction to good vs bad can be helpful here.]

To make clear… the merits of entertaining the above-mentioned idea, that racial slavery allowed for whites to be free and work in a united manner, are easily questioned. The perniciousness of racial slavery as a whole is so obvious that it hardly need be stated here.

As a refutation of Morgan’s point, it need only be said that freedom for one group of people is not freedom at all… It’s exploitation.

Still, the positing of such controversial ideas is a necessary step in understanding our identity as it relates to the past. The larger point is that we cannot understand who we are without going places, at least intellectually, that we’d rather not go.

Ideas, no matter how morally bereft, must be wrestled with.

I don’t so much intend for this to be a definitive opinion piece as a thought-initiator and conversation starter. This stands true for everything that is part of this project.

What would you say?


This writing was inspired by a reading of America’s Original Sin: Slavery and the Legacy of White Supremacy, by Annette Gordon-Reed, which appeared in the January/February 2018 issue of Foreign Affairs Magazine.