We have a massive pecan tree that just glows in the fall. Leaves wave on sturdy branches against a clear blue sky. Looking at it I remember how it made us feel grateful, hopeful, free: American!
That was years ago.
At a celebration of Constitution Day, the president announced an executive order to establish the “1776 Commission,” to “promote patriotic education.” Propaganda as history brought to you at a ceremony at the National Archives. The American Historical Association issued this rebuke: "The event was a campaign stunt, deploying the legitimating backdrop of the Rotunda, home of the nation’s founding documents, to draw distinctions between the two political parties on education policy, tie one party to civil disorder, and enable the president to explicitly attack his opponent. "
Trump directed the National Endowment for the Humanities to award a grant to support the development of a “pro-American curriculum.” Lessons of American exceptionalism ordered by the leader at a time when Pew Research finds America’s standing in the world at historic lows due to incompetent leadership, compromised democracy, racial injustice, and abuse of power.
The reference to 1776 is a clear shot at the New York Times’ 1619 Project, which pegs the story of the nation’s founding to the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in Virginia. It is also push-back to a new way schools are teaching history, “bottom-up” rather than top-down which challenges the establishment distinctly white male elite lens.
If any state were to be sensitive to the 1619 Project, you would think it would be Virginia. Yet Virginia is living up to the values of the Constitution’s Framers by leading on embracing a more authentic and true American history.
After Unite the Right Proud Boys marched in Charlottesville, Virginia Humanities (where I serve as a board member) addressed this fundamental and now well-acknowledged problem: that an American history written by the winners perpetuates a culture of white privilege. It identified stories of people of color told inaccurately, sidelined, muted, and, underrepresented. Through a grant from the Kellogg Foundation, Virginia Humanities amplified authentic narratives of women, Native Americans, and African Americans. This democracy-enriching work, in the cradle of our democracy, will continue with increased state funding from Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam and a grant from the Ford Foundation.
As cities, towns, and states take down monuments to a white supremacist past, Virginia Humanities goes to the core: reexamining the story we tell ourselves about who we are. It is a process in which all serious historians now engage. As the AHA put it, “Past generations of historians participated in promoting a mythical view of the United States.” Today the imperative is to earnestly seek accurate, honest narratives and support communities to document, preserve, and amplify stories that speak truth to glorified myths of white male supremacy.
So often we are forced to shrug off disingenuous myths and proclamations. A celebration of “Constitution Day” built around a new policy to thwart values enshrined in the Constitution: truth, free speech, and equality. Proclamations invoking jingoist patriotism and American exceptionalism in the face of global failures and plummeting world opinion. Myths celebrate a past that never existed to help mask a present politics that plays on familiar dark strains of resentments and racial hatred.
When Joe Biden talks about renewing the soul of America, it means restoring truth-telling, nourishing authentic American values, the arts, and culture.
This White House is culturally bankrupt. Four years and no poetry, no student film festivals, no youth talent shows, no celebration of literature, history, art, jazz, or dance. The President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities was abolished. That the Endowments exist at all is due to a congressional act of defiance. The president’s budget zeroed out both the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Pursuing overt symbols of wealth and power, the president has overlooked this nation’s greatest strength. When other countries disparage our foreign policies or take issue with our domestic ones, their people have always loved our music, our movies, our free speech, and our literature. Blue jeans, Elvis, and the Beatles are often credited among the forces that brought down the Berlin Wall. What every ambassador at post discovers is the most potent value of America is who we are as American people: our creativity, our innovation, our striving for equity, our bravery, our hope, our generosity, our questioning of who we are and how we got here.
Historians tell us America's democracy today hangs in a defining moment. The key to successfully navigating the challenges and opportunities resides in our culture. With a truthful assessment or our past, and an embrace in all that makes us who we are today, we may be up to Benjamin Franklin's gauntlet-like handover: "A republic, if you can keep it."
October is National Arts and Humanities Month. Observing what happens in America when we fail to protect them, invest in them, and recognize their value, is the best case that could ever be made for the Arts and Humanities.
Hollowed out, even a great tree will fall.
Megan Beyer is on the board of Virginia Humanities and is former executive director of the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities for the Obama administration.