Goddamn if I didn’t get into it last week on Facebook about Critical Race Theory with Hal Gordon, the former Reagan White House speechwriter and also speechwriter to General Colin Powell. I’ve been trying to avoid CRT altogether, just as I managed to not bore you by adding my two cents about “cancel culture” or the 1619 Project. I like to bore my readers on my terms, not on Tucker Carlson’s.
But I’ve known Hal for 30 years. He attended the first conference I ever put on. I’ve put him on stage to talk at many speechwriting conferences over that time. And what he has always talked about is history. One of the most erudite people I’ve ever met, Hal can recite long passages from history’s speeches from memory. In terms of raw historical knowledge, he’s spilled more on his tie than I ever drank.
Hal is a little too much of a Great Man Theory guy for the taste I’ve developed as a Studs Terkel acolyte, and a lot more concerned about Marxism than me and he does love the British royalty. Still, when it comes to American history and rhetoric, Hal is pretty compelling, at the lectern or in print.
So when he became increasingly hysterical about the 1619 Project and then Critical Race Theory over the last couple of months, I found it particularly troubling. In a typical post last week, he said that public school teachers “are brainwashing children to become the Red Guards of today’s Cultural Revolution.” And when I questioned that, he replied, “I’m convinced that if present trends continue, five years from now we will be living in the People’s State of America. The government, the academy, the media, the corporations, the military and even the churches have all been infected with the Critical Race Theory virus. It’s the Invasion of the Body Snatchers.”
As my teenager would say: Wait, what?
Does Hal Gordon really equate Mao Zedong’s mad domination of China with Ta-Nehisi Coates’ influence on America?
Or is he just fighting fire with foaming at the mouth?
Depending on the answer, a guy known for historical perspective has either lost his, or is willfully throwing it away.
In either case—seems like a bad sign!
Because of course a common historical perspective is what we desperately need in America—and it’s what we’re all fighting about—so we can figure out what in hell to teach our kids. And even in the most constructive spirit, it’s a hard thing to do, to tell a nation’s children a fair version of centuries of truth, in blood and water and metal and flesh. Any nation’s children, let alone the rescue mutts that make up America’s children.
So how do you go about doing it?
I’ve been struggling with this one since my own daughter Scout was in first grade, 11 years ago. For Black History Month, she was assigned a profile of Jesse Owens. It was supposed to be a family project. So her mother and I taught her about Owens’ victory at the 1936 Olympics, at the famous displeasure of the man Scout kept referring to as “Rayolph Hitler.” We took her to Owens’ grave, on the South Side of Chicago. And over lunch at Army & Lou’s Soul Food restaurant, we tested her knowledge. Her take on white supremacy was totes adorbs. Her Black teacher’s aid cried at the video we made.
I was frustrated at the prospect of starting Scout’s education with a tidy, inspirational American myth and then gradually adding further complexities and come-downs, as she got older. At the time, I wrote here on Writing Boots: “I reckon we’ll wait until next Black History Month to tell Scout that Owens actually felt more egregiously snubbed by President Roosevelt, who ‘didn’t even send me a telegram.’ Third grade? That’ll be the time we talk about how Owens was unfairly stripped of his amateur status and had to scrape together a living hustling for black exploitation films, racing against horses and running from IRS agents.” Is that what history is going to continue to be in this country? Happy myth, spoiled?
So when Hal Gordon complained that history teaching is becoming political, that seemed like the least of the problems, and the most obvious:
Wasn’t teaching political, I wrote, when I grew up, “learning how George Washington could not tell a lie. It seemed like we spent three years on Helen Keller and four minutes on Harriet Tubman, let alone the Tulsa massacre, etc, etc. I agree that the re-‘centering’ of history teaching in America that the 1619 Project insists on is a difficult problem, intellectually and even logistically. I also agree that America, as much as it is an ‘idea,’ is also a ‘story.’ And if this particular nation can’t agree on a common narrative (or at least acknowledge the truth of parallel narratives), then it strains to find a common civic ideal to hold it together. I agree these are things to be concerned about. But WORKED ON, not screamed at or wished away in hopes we can go back the that old saw about the cherry tree. Come on, man. Dig deep.”
And those were going to be the last words of this post. Until, after a pause in our conversation, Hal wrote back: “I have been giving some sober thought to what you said about making a good-faith effort to teach American history in a way that gives young people ‘a properly profound sense of the complexity of this nation’s story.’ I think that that is a noble sentiment—one with which I can agree. In fact, I think I already have. When I read what you said, I found myself thinking about a post that I wrote exactly one year ago about a way to resolve the controversy over the Emancipation Memorial in Washington, D.C.”
In this post, Hal brings his old scholarly rigor to bear to come up with “Frederick Douglass’s Solution to the Emancipation Memorial Controversy.” Read it for yourself, but it strikes me as an absolutely perfect example of the kind of honest history revision—and narrative integration—that a thousand historians of all backgrounds and perspectives need to set about doing, the best way they know how.
And I told Hal so.
And Hal replied, “You and I certainly do agree that a society like ours needs a shared sense of history. I think that a shared sense of history is one of the few things that holds us together as a nation. If you think about it, we have no monarchy, no national church, and no common racial or ethnic identity. It is our commitment to our shared ideals and our common experience that makes us one. As I said in my post, what thrilled me about the proposals to modify the Emancipation Memorial is that if implemented, these proposals would give us a memorial that would go a long way towards ‘telling the whole truth’ and would be one in which all Americans could take pride. Surely that would be a helpful step in bringing us together.”
There is much for the helpful to do, as long as helpful, we are willing to consistently be.