If a nation’s history is reduced to score settling grievance, forget about its future.
Putting Harriet Tubman on the $20 concludes a long, concerted drive to reimage U.S. currency. More to the point, it illustrates a profound, probably permanent shift in American historiography.
Tubman joins the historical pantheon of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Alexander Hamilton, and Ben Franklin. Going forward Lucretia Mott, Sojourner Truth, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Alice Paul, and Susan B. Anthony will decorate the back of the $10. The New York Times calls the changes the “most sweeping and historically symbolic makeover of American currency in a century.”
OK, no problem, we say, and maybe a good thing. Tubman on the $20 had become a political inevitability, and it’s not hard to understand her appeal. An escaped slave active in the Underground Railroad, Tubman is an inspiring historical cameo.
Tubman arguably embodies America’s expansion of civil rights principles. She comes infused with American ideals of freedom, fortitude, and determination. Some conservatives claim her as their own. She provides role models for African-American youth, it is said. She brings Oprah Winfrey joy. Yes. Yes to all of that.
No question Tubman was a remarkable, tough-minded woman. But she was not the main story of slavery, the Civil War, or abolitionism. Like the currency changes or not, she’s history as optics and affirmative action.
“The time has come to redistribute the nation’s historical capital,” the UCLA historian Gary B. Nash and multicultural activist announced 25 years ago, and we have been doing so ever since. For those who want to re-script the nation’s past, American history is too male and too white. To correct that imbalance, heroes, symbols, and legends must conform to strict rubrics of race, class, and gender. But where does this take civic history?
Civic history moves hearts and minds in epic ways, as academic history does not. And America’s story today blends Howard Zinn with Walt Disney and Oliver Stone, making Harriet Tubman a rare upside in a sinister, cautionary tale. Fiction or not, it really doesn’t matter.
Those smallpox blankets the Pilgrims handed out on the First Thanksgiving set the stage. The American Revolution? Question authority! Hamilton did hip-hop. Jefferson did Sally. White monsters raped, whipped, and lynched slaves. The Mexicans got screwed at the Alamo. Indians got screwed everywhere. The Civil War was really bloody and had some cool battles. Lincoln freed the slaves but Jim Crow made things worse. Up north, brave feminists secured the vote. Brave immigrants suffered Ellis Island and lived in tenements, producing sad-eyed, factory children. After the Stock Crash, FDR gave reassuring fireside chats. Here come the Nazis and Holocaust along with Rosie the Riveter, followed by a scowling Joe McCarthy, John Birchers, and Goldwater. More lynching. Bull Connor. Black Lives Matter! JFK, MLK, and RFK died for our sins.
Today’s civic history — what’s left of it — increasingly acts as a political weapon and propaganda tool. Its number-one purpose is to remind Americans of Western crimes and sins, the Hoover Institution’s Bruce Thornton has recently observed.
History ceases to be the measured study of individuals, institutions, resources, and regimes, and their impact, consequence, and distinction. It’s a Manichaean tale revealing liberal morality in its radiant glory. For its votaries, it is a message of righteousness and redemption.
European settlers — ministers, farmers, traders, and industrialists who built the U.S. over three centuries — stand accused ensemble. Even the huddled masses of Ellis Island are tainted by whiteness. Those whose ancestors fought to free slaves or who stood behind a nation-changing civil rights movement in the 1950s and the 1960s get the business too. Check your privilege.
American History textbooks no longer title themselves Land of the Brave or Triumph of the American Nation. How could they? Western Civ flips from Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation to a horror-show loop of raped indigenes, enslaved Africans, and exploited immigrants, a centuries-long danse macabre across North America and the world.
American civic history formerly drew a bright line between inspirational figures and the statesmen in charge of the nation’s destiny. Betsy Ross, Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, and George Washington Carver had Tubman-like roles in American popular culture. But Carver doesn’t work in today’s identity rainbow, nor does Clarence Thomas or Colin Powell. Civic history demands something juicier and ideally box office. Huey Newton, Malcolm X, or Nat Turner up against the Man is more like it, and not only for Americans of color.
So we will get exactly that, a movie coming out in October. Provocatively called Birth of a Nation, reprising the title of D.W. Griffith’s 1915 celebration of the Ku Klux Klan, will appear with fanfare this fall. A yearlong campaign that began at Sundance Film Festival three months ago will likely end with a 2017 Oscars sweep, with a lot of #OscarsSoWhite-style muttering and melodrama beforehand.
The Tubman $20 is small potatoes, a skirmish in the never-ending diversity wars. Now that currency is “reformed,” there will surely be other “battles” to redistribute historical capital so the nation’s heroes, creation stories, and legends fit the script.
A regime whose creation stories and legends turn on “enslavers” and “invaders,” however, cannot long survive. Ritual shaming is not a nation builder. Sooner or later bold paladins will feel it’s their duty to even the score with their oppressors, or failing that, their privileged descendants.