My idea of a perfect dinner party would be to have Eric Foner there. Just him alone would be fine. And I wouldn’t have to say a word, I would just ask him to talk. This book is the next-best thing; in fact, it’s better, because you don’t even have to cook! You can just open it and read his thoughts on a variety of important topics.
Eric Foner is a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, and the leading historian of America’s Reconstruction Era. He is also intellectually dazzling, and both wise and endlessly interesting. I have read all his books, taken his courses online, and now am delighted to read this collection of essays by him that are reprinted from “The Nation” Magazine, and that were published from 1977 to 2017. Even though I was familiar with many of them, he is so excellent that one can just never read him too much or too often.
The book begins with an introduction by Randall Kennedy, the renowned Harvard intellectual, who summarizes much of Foner’s more salient insights on both the politics of history and the politics of race.
Foner reminds us that historical accounts and representations of the past, such as those curated in museums, stake a claim in a very contested terrain, because what we remember about our history helps form our ideas about who we are as a people. Furthermore, the selection of which documents, pictures, statues or other representations of our past are displayed and which are omitted are critically important to that process.
It is ironic that museums have been regarded as “neutral” or “value-free” reflections of cultural heritage, because in fact, they are anything but.
Objects and ideas are selected to sustain certain myths and ideologies, valorizing them over those that are ignored. They in turn generate a cultural consciousness: this is what we “remember” and this is what we take to be “historical truth.” The form and structures of these remembrances are simultaneously a deliberate designation of what we choose to forget.
As Foner avers, “[u]ltimately, public monuments are built by those with sufficient power to determine which parts of history are worth commemorating and what vision of history ought to be conveyed.”
Foner rails against “the amnesia, evasions and misrepresentations” of popular history, particularly in the area of racial conflict. He notes that “[t]hroughout our history, contemporary political problems and commitments have shaped the questions Americans asked about their past and the answers they found.”
He looks not only at museums but also at the docudrama, observing astutely that “the fact that individual action is highlighted and collective action ignored is not simply a consequence of the small screen. Even more, one suspects, it reflects the persistent hold of that peculiarly American strand of individualism on the writers.”
Here he is making the point that a story of individual initiative is one of the ways in which a more threatening narrative of a social movement (especially one that is minority-led) is watered down to conform to the myth of the American Dream, in which any hard-working, courageous person has an equal chance to make a difference and/or to succeed in the American society and economy.
But, as he points out that the intellectual Eric Hobsbawm warned, “studies of the agency of ordinary people, so important in expanding the cast of historical characters, must be placed in the broader context of how social and political power is exercised.”
The fact that these stories rarely are put into a broader social and economic context offers a “meta” lesson about the political ends of carefully shaped narratives couched as “histories.” In addition to telling a story about a specific person, they subtly confer a certain authority or legitimacy upon what is actually a specific set of values, norms, and perspectives that in turn affects popular reactions to events.
In his essay reviewing the work of James W. Loewen (author of books such as “Lies My Teacher Told Me and “Teaching What Really Happened”) Foner singles out tours of historic plantations as a good example of selective memory. He argues that they “ignore or sugarcoat the lives of slaves. No whips, chains or other artifacts of discipline are on display, and presentations by guides focus on the furniture, gardens and architecture rather than the role of slave labor in creating the wealth they represent.” [We found this to be true on a recent tour of George Washington’s Mt. Vernon, where Washington’s slaves were described as Washington’s “servants.”]
Not only is slavery elided whenever possible, he charges, but also the slave trade, “a central element of the pre-Civil War Southern economy,” is generally omitted from public histories. And most germane to Foner’s primary field of study, “Reconstruction …is almost invisible in America’s public history.” To the extent it is covered, it is done so in a way that twists the truth. The history often told (“a time of rampant corruption presided over by unscrupulous Northern carpetbaggers and former slaves unprepared of the freedom that had been thrust upon them”) is an erroneous one that “helped to justify the subsequent policies of segregation and black disfranchisement in the South and the North’s prolonged indifference to white Southerner’s nullification of the federal Constitution.”
He holds that opponents of equality changed the narrative to one of a federal bureaucracy trampling on the rights of white citizens in favor of those who were lazy, incompetent, and bent on defiling white women. (Here Foner laments the irony of that canard, when so many slave women were sexually assaulted by their white masters. Nevertheless, in the South, as he charges, the accusation of rape of a white woman by a black man, rarely substantiated, was enough to motivate a lynching.)
What Foner wants readers to know is that whiteness has an economic value, and that value has underlaid much of the history of race in America, albeit in an unacknowledged way.
Similarly, he emphasizes, “American radicalism is generally excised from public history.” He cites historian Charles Beard, who taught that American history had been shaped by the struggle of competing economic groups. But you don’t read about that in most history books. He applauds Bernie Sanders for bringing back a recognition of the importance of economic structures for the exercise of power in politics, but regrets that Sanders draws upon the experience of European socialists more than that of homegrown American radicals.
Other topics include social Darwinism (remarkably persistent, and especially popular now among the Alt-Right), affirmative action, the Electoral college, Lincoln and his personal growth on the issue of slavery, the uses of the memory of Lincoln, the 14th Amendment, a particularly astute analysis of Barack Obama and his presidency, and September 11 and the anti-Arab, “clash of civilizations” mentality that has gained so much popularity, and according to which western civilization is superior. (He reminds us: “The definition of ‘Western civilization’ is highly selective – it includes the Enlightenment but not the Inquisition, liberalism but not the Holocaust, Charles Darwin but not the Salem witch trials.”)
He concludes: “History does inform the present, and it should. That’s what I mean by a useable past: a historical consciousness that can enable us to address the problems of society today in an intelligent manner.”
Evaluation: Anyone not already familiar with the breadth and depth of Foner’s ideas will get an excellent overview from this wonderful and all-too-brief collection of essays. They have been chosen well: even the older essays remain relevant and important in light of current events.
Published by I.B. Tauris & Co., 2017