Reaffirm who we hope to be, instead of ‘reimagining’ our history
We are living in the age of reimagination. We are not reducing police, we are “reimagining policing” … not “packing” the Supreme Court but “reimagining justice” … not embracing media bias but “reimagining journalism” … not embracing censorship but “reimagining free speech.”
Conversely, the lack of such imagination can be a career-ending flaw. As a result, many remain silent rather than question the need for the revisions that come with “reimagination.”
That dilemma was evident as a federal task force recently issued a call to “reimagine history” at the National Archives, including adding warnings to protect unsuspecting visitors before they read our founding documents. We are reimagining ourselves out of the very founding concepts that once defined us. Reimagining the founding documents comes at a time when many are calling to “reimagine the First Amendment” and other constitutional guarantees.
National Archivist David Ferriero created a racism task force for the National Archives after last summer’s protests over the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Such task forces are created with the expectation that they will find problems, and — once recommendations are made — objecting to “anti-racist” reforms can easily be misconstrued as being insensitive or even racist.
Obviously, documents and spaces can be viewed differently from different backgrounds. There is also a need to contextualize our history to deal honestly with our past. However, the “reimagination” line should not divide the woke from the wicked. Yet that is the fear for many academics who do not want to risk their careers after campaigns against dissenting voices on campuses around the country.
For example, for many of us, the National Archives’ Rotunda — containing the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights — is a moving, reverential place celebrating common articles of constitutional faith. That is not what the task force members saw.
Instead, they declared that the iconic Rotunda is one of three examples of structural racism: “a Rotunda in our flagship building that lauds wealthy White men in the nation’s founding while marginalizing BIPOC, women, and other communities.” They called for “reimagining” the space to be more inclusive, including possible dance and performance art. Even the famous murals in the Rotunda might have to go: The task force noted that some view the murals as “an homage to White America.”
The report objected to the laudatory attention given white Framers and Founders, particularly figures like Thomas Jefferson. It encouraged the placement of “trigger warnings” to “forewarn audiences of content that may cause intense physiological and psychological symptoms.”
The task force report called for “reimagining” the portrayal of founding documents on OurDocuments.gov, the website for America’s “milestone documents.” The task force objected that the “100 milestone documents of American history” included “adulatory and excessive language to document the historical contributions of White, wealthy men.”
The task force called for warnings and revision of racist language but stressed that such language “means not only explicitly harmful terms, such as racial slurs, but also information that implies and reinforces damaging stereotypes of BIPOC individuals and communities while valorizing and protecting White people.” It also called for “the creation of safe spaces” in every facility run by the National Archives and Record Administration (NARA).
A task force subgroup recommended that NARA “retire” the term “charters of freedom” as descriptors for the founding documents because “these documents did not result in freedom for everyone.” In addition, new signage would contain “trigger warnings” to protect tourists from potential trauma in seeing the documents; visitors would now be warned that the documents they are reading may “contain harmful language that reflects attitudes and biases of their time.”
It is not clear how such signage truly ameliorates the harm for some in reading founding documents, as opposed to making a statement about the history itself.
Hopefully, most people visiting the National Archives have some passing knowledge of the age and history of both the documents and the country.
Before we bubble-wrap our history, it is worth discussing other inherent messages not from the documents, but the warning signs themselves.
There is no question that the documents, like many of the Framers, reveal an inherent hypocrisy in speaking of natural rights that were cruelly denied to millions left in slavery. That hypocrisy continued as women and minorities fought for the guarantees of those documents.
However, it is not the documents but our failure to live up to those principles that is the tragedy of our nation.
There were early figures who recognized that hypocrisy — even some like Jefferson, who personally embodied the contradictions of the time. Jefferson originally included a 168-word passage in the Declaration of Independence that condemned slavery as one of the evils foisted upon the colonies by the British crown; it was cut to secure the vote of Southern states. Yet Jefferson himself owned a large number of slaves, as did many of the Founders and Framers. Some other early figures — John Adams, Thomas Paine, Roger Sherman, Alexander Hamilton, the Marquis de Lafayette and others — were adamant abolitionists. They too are part of our history.
The Constitution itself is like a codified stratigraphic record of our struggle with own values. Indeed, more than 600,000 Americans were killed during the Civil War to guarantee those rights and ultimately reaffirm them with the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the Bill of Rights. The Constitution contained the powers in the first three articles that allowed a free nation to end segregation, realize women’s suffrage, and guarantee equality for insular minorities. These documents were a promise that our nation strived to fulfill, a struggle that continues to this day.
The National Archives’ Rotunda is a reverential place because it represents a leap of faith by a nation composed of different races, religions and values. The documents compose our covenant of faith not with the government or the past but with each other. We have not always lived up to the ideals expressed in the documents — yet our history is not defined by where we began but, instead, by where we strive to be.
Before we bring in the dance groups and post the trigger warnings, perhaps what we need is a reaffirmation rather than a reimagination of who we are.
The National Archives is our collective story. These documents imagined a new country and a set of ideals that no nation had ever realized in history. They are a collective statement of transcendence from where we were to where we hoped to be as a people. Perhaps we are not there yet, but we have come a long way. That is worth understanding — and even celebrating — without the historical bumpers and safety proofing. Just imagine that.
NOTE: This post has been updated from the original to correct the numbering of the post-Civil War amendments.
Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University. You can find his updates on Twitter @JonathanTurley.
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