Every year, we recognize February as Black History Month and March as Women’s History Month. During these two months—someone decided—we pause from our “normal” histories and emphasize the role of African Americans and women in the national past. Or, as only The Onion can put it, we take a little break from White Male History Year.
Honoring African American and women’s history requires more than just sprinkling a little Rosa Parks into the stories we already tell. The noted women’s historian Joan Scott explains that African American and women’s history are not simply addendums or accessories to the “main narrative” of American history. Indeed, when explored honestly, the black and female pasts entirely reframe our nation’s master narrative.
Specifically, women’s history upends the tale of exceptionalism that commonly masquerades as American history. Take, for example, the stories of Anne Hutcheson and Mary Dyer. Our Puritan forbearers banished Hutcheson for her unorthodox biblical teachings and hanged Dyer for her Quaker faith. Their stories highlight the extraordinary religious intolerance in much of colonial America and problematize the trope that Europeans settled North America in a universal and noble quest to establish religious freedom. Or consider Elizabeth Cady Stanton who, in her “Declaration of Sentiments,” ironically paraphrased the Declaration of Independence to highlight the oppression of American women. Her efforts challenge our view of that esteemed document, concocted and signed solely by men of means, as the sacred repository of timeless truths.
Stories of America’s black past equally subvert the master narrative. How can we understand Thomas Jefferson apart from his slaves (six hundred in all) whose lifelong toil created Jefferson’s social, economic, and political world? How can we talk about America’s rapid early nineteenth-century rise as a global economic power without identifying the cotton produced by black Americans as the engine of that rise? Central to the prosperity of both the North and South, the blood, sweat, and tears of slaves built this country in ways still not adequately acknowledged.
Most of the time, a half-true story passes for our national narrative. Hardly surprising, since we’ve let the experiences of only one select group (in this case, elite white males) stand-in for our collective past. We should not rest content with the bone of two months for African American and women’s history and the truer, richer, more complex narrative they offer.
In our present moment, these concerns extend far beyond academic exercise. Our national leaders reveal their serious history problem at every turn. The President seemed uncomfortable last month discussing the runaway slave and abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass. Perhaps he thinks that Elizabeth Cady Stanton also “has done an amazing job and is getting recognized more and more.” The Steves—Bannon, Miller, and King—believe they live in a country built by white Europeans and that America’s greatness depends on protecting and nourishing that “superior” civilization. While Bannon reportedly read history avidly as a college student, he clearly drank deeply of the distorted meta-narrative I’ve described—a story largely devoid of the experiences of women, absent the voices of black Americans, missing the witness of Native Americans, and lacking immigrant perspectives. If only he’d read books written in February or March!
The proponents of the orthodox narrative marshal this distorted story to support their ideas and policies, and therein lies the danger. If only white Christians built this country, it would help the argument to limit the presence and influence of the brown, the non-Christian, and the non-western. If only elites have mattered in our past, why assist the poor in their quest for basic needs like healthcare? If male prowess exclusively has moved us forward, why bother to take women seriously as thinkers and leaders, and to safeguard their rights, health, and autonomy? Indeed, in the President’s call to make America “great again,” he unwittingly evokes a mythic past created by and for the privileged few.
Right now, with our leaders crafting pernicious policies around a perverse version of the American past, we must insistently advance our more complete story. Tell it loudly, tell it clearly, and tell it often. Let America’s black and female past overflow the confines of February and March—all year long, let these stories saturate our understanding of who we are and how we came to be. Repeat this messy, dappled, and glorious tale: whites alone did not build this country, Western Civilization is not superior, women lead, the poor deserve dignity, and America, as ever, remains a nation of immigrants from every corner of the globe.
I chose the history profession because I loved how the past brings me in contact with a multiplicity of ways of being human. I find endless fascination in the richness and complexity of the human condition. But at the present unique moment, I need history—it keeps me tethered to reality.