The Painful Reminder: History as Reality Check

Who Owns History?: Rethinking the Past in a Changing World , by Eric Foner. Hill & Wang, 233 pages, $24.

“We must forget the past,” Nelson Mandela once said, hoping that a new South Africa would emerge vengeance-free from its crippling history of apartheid. Eric Foner, a distinguished historian at Columbia University, hears that and cringes. Though he praises Mr. Mandela for his forgiving spirit, Mr. Foner insists that “we can forget the past, but the past, most assuredly, will not forget us.” He reminds us of Marx’s gloomy assessment-that the past “weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living”-and warns that unless history is dealt with conscientiously, as something “literally present in all we do” (as James Baldwin once wrote), the meaning of contemporary events gets flattened out, decontextualized and dangerously subject to whatever forces might profit by its manipulation. This danger looms especially large in the United States, where history seems increasingly silent or invisible-not just because of our vaunted tendency to “look forward” and “move on,” but because our educational system hasn’t figured out how to animate history for the new generation (which slanged the word “history” into a synonym for irrelevance), and because the saturations of mass media crowd the past right out of consciousness.

In Who Owns History?, a book of nine essays, most of which originated as lectures delivered to various audiences from 1983 till 2001, Mr. Foner finds himself embattled on many fronts. As a public historian-he’s emerged in the last decade from his position as a greatly respected scholar on slavery and Reconstruction to speak to a broader audience about notions of liberty and equality-his job has been to infuse public discourse with a historical awareness that does more than boost patriotic fervor or serve up the past as exciting adventure drained of ideological content. Hence his painstaking critique, in this volume, of Ken Burns’ Civil War TV series, which wowed the public but essentially cast the war, Mr. Foner says, as “a family quarrel among white Americans, and [celebrated] the road to reunion without considering the price paid for national reconciliation-the abandonment of the ideal of racial justice.” As a leftist, Mr. Foner has had to fight off the wave of conservative revisionism that crested with Reagan and has soaked and besotted American thinking ever since with, among other things, anti-immigrant legislation, canon-war cheerleading that hails America and Western Civ über alles, and federal judges bent on implementing the Constitution’s “original intent.” (Mr. Foner recalls Thurgood Marshall’s saying that given its slavery provisions-e.g., Article I, Section II and Article IV, Section II-not all Americans think the Constitution’s “original intent” particularly benign.) And as a historian coming out of the old left-his father, also a historian, was blacklisted in the late 40′s, and W.E.B. DuBois and Paul Robeson were family friends-Mr. Foner has had to position himself carefully vis-à-vis the new postmodern history, negotiating between the old-left desire for a unified narrative and the new “social history” which, while giving voice to previously suppressed groups and honoring their differences, tends to atomize their stories and render the past a historical Tower of Babel.

The essays range wide, beginning with “My Life as a Historian,” a personal narrative that presents a vivid picture of the influences that shaped Mr. Foner as a historian, including his mother, who stormed into his grade-school classroom to complain to the teacher about the sugar-coated way slavery was being taught. “What difference does it make,” the teacher rejoined, “what we teach them about slavery?” A seminal moment: Mr. Foner has devoted his life to making an engagement with the history of slavery a “difference” that matters in our conceptions of American identity. The essay goes on to show how Mr. Foner’s early activism in the civil-rights movement dovetailed with his scholarly interests in the Reconstruction, and how the blacklisting of family members (his mother and uncle were also targeted) in the 1940′s prepared him for the social revolution of the coming decades. “I did not have to wait until the 1960′s to discover the yawning gap that separated America’s professed ideals, and its self-confident claim to be a land of liberty, from its social and political reality.”

Other essays explore Mr. Foner’s relationship with his mentor, Richard Hofstadter, or pose the question “Why Is There No Socialism in the United States?” (Short answer: Ask not for a viable socialist party in the U.S., which won’t happen here, but for an egalitarian social-democratic movement that doesn’t require revolution.) A pair of essays investigate the ways that post-Soviet Russia and post-apartheid South Africa, in the midst of forging new national identities, are forced to rethink their pasts. Russia, Mr. Foner finds, is in danger of embracing a nostalgic view of the czarist past as a way to distance itself from its 20th-century totalitarian legacy, while South Africa seems all too eager to forget history in its drive toward national reconciliation.

It is this concern with the nexus between past and present, between our interpretations of history and our contemporary notions of national identity, that animates the book’s three strongest essays. Here Mr. Foner is on familiar ground, examining how American ideals of liberty and equality remain inextricably tangled with the enduring legacy of slavery, the Civil War and the betrayals that came at the end of the Reconstruction era. In “Who Is an American?”, Mr. Foner frustrates the conservative demand in the 1990′s for a patriotic definition of American identity by showing how supposed universal principles of liberty and equality “have been historically constructed on the basis of difference and exclusion.” He reminds us that Crevecouer answered his famous question “What then is the American, the new man?” this way: “He is either a European, or the descendant of a European”-odd, Mr. Foner notes, since at the time “fully one fifth of the population … consisted of Africans and their descendants.” In “Blacks and the U.S. Constitution,” Mr. Foner summarizes the “long, complex constitutional history of African Americans,” showing that that history, far from moving inevitably toward the golden telos of equality, is filled with crises and backsliding, especially in our own era, when the Supreme Court seems to “have entered a second Redemption-as the restoration of white supremacy was called in the late nineteenth-century South.” We now have a court, Mr. Foner says, with an “undisguised lack of sympathy for efforts to undo the effects of racism.” And in “American Freedom in a Global Age,” Mr. Foner shows how “the relationship between globalization and freedom may be the most pressing political and social problem of the twenty-first century”-not because of terrorism (the essay was written pre-9/11), but because emerging global institutions like the World Bank, the I.M.F. and the NAFTA tribunals are quietly stripping nation-states and their citizens of their sovereignty while encouraging the equation of freedom with “the free market,” personal liberty with the ability to pick out anything one wants at Wal-Mart.

Historians, Eric Hobsbawm once said, “are the professional remembrancers of what their fellow citizens wish to forget.” Mr. Foner takes this vocation seriously, repeatedly challenging the complacencies that allow the “yawning gap” between American ideals and American reality.

Cornel Bonca is the books editor for OC Weekly and teaches literature at California State University, Fullerton.