Reading and writing

Why America is at war over the history of slavery

I think part of what has happened over the past few years with the Black Lives Matter movement, there have been more people – not everyone, but definitely more – whose understanding of the history of this country has been complicated, has been nuanced, has been enlarged, and people are more honest about what this story is.

I think the implication of this is that you have millions of people who are recalibrating their previous understandings of what America was and what America is today. As a result, I think you have this incredible amount of pushback from people for whom asking questions about American history is an existential threat, because then they have to be asking questions about themselves. And they have to re-evaluate their own sense of who they are and how they fit into it. When you’ve been told a specific story your whole life about how you, your family, and your community fit into American history, and people come forward to tell a different story of America, or a story that includes many facets that were previously left out, then it threatens your sense of yourself, it threatens your identity.

David Borsen, who is one of the Monticello guides, told me that when you tell a different story about Jefferson, you are telling a different story about America. And when people need to ask questions or reassess their understanding of Jefferson, they need to reassess their understanding of themselves.

Sure. Because people are invested in a very intimate and emotional way with the stories about the country they live in and the position they have in that country. And so, as you note, we’re in this moment where so many people are now re-examining this, and this re-examination is necessarily going to be a messy and complicated process that involves lashes and backlash.

Absoutely. And I think there are people who approach these issues differently, right? You have a bunch of people for whom there is meaning, they didn’t know what they didn’t know. There has been a systemic and structural failure in our education system which is in part linked to the success of historical and ideological projects, projects like the Lost Cause which caused many people not to understand the history of the slavery in a way that is commensurate with the real impact it has had on this country.

And I think when these people are confronted with new information, when they go to Monticello or on a walking tour of the Underground Railroad in New York City, they are often confronted with information that they do not have. had never met before. But there is also an openness with which to receive this information and then take that information and have this story explain how they understand themselves and the landscape of inequalities across this country.

There are also a lot of people you can share all the empirical evidence with, all primary source documents, all historical facts with and it won’t matter. Because the reason they believe what they believe isn’t because they don’t have information, it’s because that information threatens the position they have taken for themselves within in their families and in society. It’s a real existential threat to the way someone understands who they are in the world.

Margarita W. Wilson

The author Margarita W. Wilson