Slavery vs. ‘equality of all men’ is an inherently divisive subject. This is what the past four years have been about: the ‘last shriek’ of racism.
The most hardened, nonreligious person will likely acknowledge that forces of good and evil exist in this world. And they both express themselves through the actions of human beings.
When good forces brought the settlers to America to found a nation on the proposition that all men are created equal, evil forces were also active bringing slavery to our shore. Ultimately, equality and slavery could not coexist. One cannot sustain a nation founded on equality and, at the same time, institutionalize the enslavement of some 4 million humans.
For close to 90 years, our nation struggled with this alien DNA infecting its bloodstream, seeking a compromise that would allow slavery and equality to coexist. However, any compromise meant that slavery would prevail. None of the compromises, and there were many, resolved the dichotomy. Each attempt amended the founding proposition to declare, “Some are created equal; others are created unequal.”
We fought our only civil war over this issue. The 620,000 Union and Confederate souls who died in that war nearly equal all the Americans who died in all other wars combined. The civil war ended slavery, settled secession and kept the nation intact. Yet it did not succeed in achieving the promise of true equality for all. And so here we are in 2021 still struggling with the consequences of slavery.
US history was never about all of us
Although purging the nation of slavery was central to our national well-being, American history books ignored the African Americans’ role in the entire scope of our nation’s history. It was these centuries of omission that led to the creation of Black History Month and the rise of first the civil rights movement and later the Black Lives Matter movement.
Historian James McPherson observed that a nation without a history is like a man with amnesia. His self-identity is lost. He doesn’t know who he is.
This dilemma was addressed in 2019 — 400 years after 20 slaves landed in America. We know enslaved Africans were already in the Americas, but after The New York Times published its “1619 Project,” an illuminating series of documented essays on the centrality of slavery in our national history, we snapped out of our collective inertia. The project spurned a flurry of activity and energy to work to somehow right this perverse wrong.
It was so well received that the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting provided, online, free lesson plans for teachers. More than 4,500 teachers across the country are using the materials.
Unfortunately, nipping at the heels of the award-winning 1619 Project was the “1776 Commission” established by former President Donald Trump, designed to counter the project’s premise that slavery is central to our national story with a specious counterhistory of its own. The American Historical Association dismissed the commission’s report as “written hastily in one month … without any consultation with professional historians.” Moreover, the AHS noted, Trump’s commission even “ignores the Confederate States of America.”
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There’s nothing going on in today’s cancel culture as insidiously revisionist as ignoring the Confederacy’s rebellion against the results of the election of 1860.
Today, on the heels of the culture-canceling Trump commission report, come Republican lawmakers in Arkansas, Iowa, Mississippi, Missouri and South Dakota who want to stop — cancel, if you will — the 1619 Project from being taught in public schools. Their bills use some of the same language as a federal bill introduced by Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton, “The Saving American History Act of 2021.” At least three of the measures have died.
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Bear in mind that the 1619 Project is historiography, the study of how history is written about. The project presents a perspective, missing until now, that places the role played by African Americans in the founding of the country as essential to our national being. It does not diminish the role or history of white Europeans, but it does contrast the internal contradiction (some would say hypocrisy) of promulgating “equality for all” while building a system based on forced labor.
The bills’ sponsors say the 1619 Project is divisive. The subject of slavery versus “the equality of all men” is, in fact, inherently divisive. When we get down to the nub of it, this is what the past four years have been about. Tragically, the radical right’s populist movement will never accept the fact that American history was never about the history of all Americans.
Desperate to stop equality for all
It has become painfully clear that today’s Republican Party has slowly and systematically attempted to exclude one group of citizens after another, widening the exclusionary circle to encompass the entire Democratic Party and, most recently, even Vice President Mike Pence and other insufficiently zealous members of their own party. Indeed, nine out of the 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump already have primary challengers.
What we have witnessed since 2016, to borrow a phrase from Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of State William Seward, is the “last shriek, on the retreat” of racism. Like the Confederate insurrectionists of 1860, their “compromise” is really an absolutism, an exclusion from equality that must be obeyed.
We saw the end result of Republican absolutism in the insurrection of Jan. 6 when a murderous mob of Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol, seeking to hang the vice president, murder the speaker of the House and kill any elected officials who disagreed with their leader’s lie about a stolen election.
We are witnessing the same warfare again with state Republican parties waging war against voting rights. It’s part of a plan to roll back the progress of moving toward a more perfect union — the fight to make the promise of true equality real for everyone in America.
Our children deserve to learn this universal truth and American value: Equality is either for everyone or it will be for no one.
Donna Brazile is the endowed chair of the Gwendolyn and Colbert King public policy lecture series at Howard University, an adjunct assistant professor in the Women’s and Gender Studies Program at Georgetown University, a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors, a Fox News contributor and the author of “Hacks: The Inside Story of the Break-ins and Breakdowns that Put Donald Trump in the White House.” Follow her on Twitter: @donnabrazile
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