A challenge facing the United States is how to combine the good and bad of our history into shared narratives. Telling Our Nation’s Story, one of the recommendations of the Academy’s Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship, calls for communities to work toward a common narrative by engaging in honest conversations about the past in order to reckon with what divides us while uncovering what unites us. At a virtual program, hosted by the Academy’s Research Triangle Program Committee in partnership with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Research Week, John Aldrich (Duke University), Phoebe Stein (Federation of State Humanities Councils), and William Sturkey (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) discussed how communities across the Research Triangle can meld the pride and pain of their regional history to create a more honest and inclusive common narrative. The program included introductions from Terry Magnuson (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) and Paula D. McClain (Duke University) as well as opening remarks from Congressman David E. Price (4th District of North Carolina). An edited version of the presentations and discussion follows.
October 22, 2020 | Virtual Event
David E. Price is a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, representing the 4th District of North Carolina.
I am grateful for the opportunity to join you today at one of the regional conversations envisioned in the American Academy’s recent report, Our Common Purpose: Reinventing American Democracy for the 21st Century. The Academy dates to the earliest years of the republic; its founders included John Adams and John Hancock. Today, the Academy is best known for its policy studies that respond thoughtfully and creatively to the needs of society. Locally, we recall and are grateful for the Academy’s role in establishing the National Humanities Center in Research Triangle Park.
As a member of Congress, I have been involved in the commissioning of two recent Academy projects. The Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences, cochaired by Duke University President Richard Brodhead, produced an acclaimed report, The Heart of the Matter. This report surveyed the contribution the humanities and social sciences make to our common life and how they might be promoted and strengthened. We held a forum at North Carolina State University to discuss the report, much like the meeting we are having today.
Next came the Commission on Language Learning and its report, America’s Languages: Investing in Language Education for the 21st Century. That report established the importance and current state of language learning and suggested multiple ways it might be advanced.
Now we have the much-anticipated report of the Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship, Our Common Purpose. The report is very broad-gauged, as indicated by the leading questions it poses:
- How do we achieve equality of voice and representation?
- How do we empower voters?
- How do we ensure the responsiveness of political institutions?
- How do we dramatically expand civic bridging capacity?
- How do we build civic information architecture that supports common purpose?
- How do we inspire a culture of commitment to American constitutional democracy and to one another?
In the circles I frequent, most discussions have focused on such specific recommendations as:
- expanding the size of the House of Representatives;
- instituting nonpartisan legislative districting;
- overcoming court-imposed limits on the regulation of campaign contributions and spending;
- implementing eighteen-year terms for Supreme Court justices;
- holding elections on Veterans Day, a national holiday; and
- ensuring voting rights for ex-prisoners.
Today’s discussion, however, will highlight the report’s broader focus on civic culture, namely inspiring a “Culture of Commitment to American Constitutional Democracy and One Another” – one aspect of which is engaging communities across the country in “direct, open-ended, and inclusive conversations about the complex and always evolving American story.”
We have outstanding leaders to get the dialogue started. I am looking forward to our discussion.
Phoebe Stein is President of the Federation of State Humanities Councils.
Thank you, Congressman Price, for those inspiring words and for your many years of support for the work of the state humanities councils. I am honored to be here among such esteemed thinkers who are working to bring the public and the Academy together to build a stronger democracy.
Let me begin by saying a little bit about the Federation of State Humanities Councils. We are the membership organization for the nation’s jurisdictional humanities councils. There is a humanities council in every state and territory and the District of Columbia. Councils are independent 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations, created by Congress in the 1970s, and they receive an annual federal appropriation through the National Endowment for the Humanities. So, this is truly a private-public partnership. Collectively, the work of the state humanities councils is to use the humanities to bring communities together to listen, to learn, and to challenge one another. Working in and with the community, councils create and conduct public humanities programs that respond to the unique issues and concerns facing their communities and explore where community priorities and stories diverge and overlap. This is why the Academy’s Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship, which issued the report Our Common Purpose, calls on the state humanities councils (as “civic organizations”) to support Strategy 6, which relates to civic culture: “Inspire a Culture of Commitment to American Constitutional Democracy and One Another.” But more specifically, recommendation 6.2: “create a Telling Our Nation’s Story initiative to engage communities throughout the country in direct, open-ended, and inclusive conversations about the complex and always evolving American story.”
I like that we will explore feelings and hopes for the country and that they will be shared in these community conversations. Because this commission and this report are courageous, we dive right into “the heart of the matter.” I am glad Congressman Price mentioned The Heart of the Matter report, another wonderful Academy publication. Here again the Academy wanted national conversations to reconcile the noble aspects of our history with our greatest sins.
Let me add that this specific recommendation for community conversations is built on some research that Susan Glisson published in an article with Cambridge University Press, which tells us that trust building is a prerequisite for systems to change. And that is what Our Common Purpose is about: the idea that communities can make themselves better and build trust in order to tell the truth about their pasts.
So, what can and does this look like across the nation through the work of the state humanities councils? Since 2015, the state humanities councils have conducted three national programs funded in large part by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, in which between 40 to 50 of the 55 councils organized programs over a year or two on a timely topic. The first was focused on the centennial of the Pulitzer Prizes. The second, “Democracy and the Informed Citizen,” focused on the role and importance of an informed citizenry and looked at the role journalism plays in a strong democracy. The third is the second phase of the “Democracy and the Informed Citizen” work, which provides new programs nationwide. The goal of those national initiatives, like the work that the councils have been doing for more than forty years, is to strengthen civil society and give attention to what the report calls “a full range of stories that make up our complex history.”
It’s interesting that the tagline for the North Carolina Humanities Council is “Many Stories, One People.” Stories are really at the heart of what this project is about. In Mississippi, we have public forums on the state flag, with participants who wanted to keep the flag and participants who wanted to jettison it altogether. In Alaska, what this work looks like are story circles with indigenous youth sharing and telling their stories. In Nebraska, it is a lecture and Q&A session with Doris Kearns Goodwin. In Guam, we have publications about the indigenous CHamorro people and the barriers they face to civic participation and voting at the national level. In Oregon, there is a monthly conversation series called Bridging Oregon that starts with the idea that Oregon is a divided state and asks how people can come together to create stronger, more resilient communities. New Hampshire has an entire series that presents Black thought leaders in the state. And, as was reported yesterday in The New York Times, Indiana Humanities is giving grants to artists and humanists to create statues of and about forgotten women’s history in that state.
I want to be clear that for the humanities councils, this work is equally about creating courageous as well as safe spaces, where multiple perspectives can be shared. Finally, I think it’s worth saying that the “new narratives” that Our Common Purpose calls for are ones that would bring together what historian Jill Lepore calls “the gory and the glory”: humanities councils do not aim to get people to think alike or to come to the same conclusion. Rather, the goal, as it is in the Bridging Oregon program, is to explore the idea that we are divided and ask how we can come together to create stronger, more resilient communities. So that is our common purpose: to have more resilient communities, not total agreement or unanimity.
William Sturkey is Associate Professor of History at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
I want to open by sharing something. In the fall of 2014, which was my second year at UNC – I was a research fellow before I joined the faculty – I was at an event for the Center for the Study of the American South. I was having a conversation with an older White man and we were talking about history, and at some point in the conversation he told me, “I just want to let you know that my family owned slaves, and those slaves were happy.” He added a bit more. “When Sherman came through to liberate the South, the matriarch of the enslaved family said, ‘No, no, turn back around. We’re very content and happy with our life here.’”
Think about that for a moment. This is a regional story: race, memory, and identity all playing out in a single sentence uttered to a stranger at a party – his identity, my perceived identity; his race, my perceived race; and a family “memory” all in one sentence. That is the regional story that members of that rich, White family have been telling us for more than a hundred years.
Think about the work that that story and stories like it have been doing: Like so many myths in America’s racial history, this tale is rooted in White superiority. It is a story constructed to justify both the past and the present. In the past, it justified disenfranchisement, racial inequality, and the Jim Crow system. Today, it remains a pillar of Southern and even American White identity – that Black people didn’t really have it all that bad, and that White people deserve credit for building Southern society because they were more innovative and industrious. As bad as things might have been, as this tale goes, it gave us this and so it was worth it. But if you follow the logic here, if those enslaved people were completely content in their enslavement, then that man’s family really did nothing morally wrong. And if they did nothing wrong, then slavery was just part of a natural process that was not only necessary for the development of the South and of America, but also in some ways essential to my very existence at UNC. Of course, the ultimate inference is that Black people held in bondage were inherently inferior, and that this man’s family – and by extension he – deserves their positions of great wealth and privilege. The reasons White people have a higher position is because they worked for it: they were more talented and industrious.
One of the conflicts we have now in this country over our national story comes from the fact that we are in the second generation after Jim Crow. Black historians and thinkers are encountering these old tales with a very fresh take. After all, they didn’t let us into the archive until the mid-1960s. In the grand scheme of things, these stories are quite old. They might go back hundreds of years, but Black people have only had a platform for two generations. The same could be said of other minority groups and of women. My father was eighteen years old when UNC hired its first Black tenure-track professor. I am the first generation of my family ever born outside of the Jim Crow South. We hear these stories from White men at parties and we are skeptical. How could we not be? How could we not be skeptical of our ancestors’ inherent inferiority and contentment in enslavement?
Maybe there are other perspectives that should be considered. Maybe there were structures that can explain how and why that man’s family became so wealthy. When you look closely, you see that his family was given a land grant. Okay, that explains how they got their land. When you look closely, you see that his family was able to take out a loan to purchase enslaved people. And, of course, they held absolute rights over these enslaved people. Those enslaved people were not allowed to marry, or leave, or decide who to have children with, or learn how to read, or choose where they slept at night or what clothes they wore. They couldn’t be free, and even if they could be free, they couldn’t own a gun or a farm or even remain in the state without fearing that they might be re-enslaved. Their lives were maximized for profits for that man’s family.
Even after slavery, they couldn’t go to the University of North Carolina, or invest in a railroad, or start a chemical company, or create a philanthropic foundation, or put up a Confederate monument, or raise a militia and ride through the streets of Wilmington killing Black people in 1898. These are not random examples. These are all things that man’s family did. I know that because I am a historian and I looked them up. Of course, that’s not part of the story that he told me.
We are telling the full story now. And when you tell the full story, the reasons for the Black-White wealth gap, the reasons for racial inequalities in our country, look a lot different. Part of our modern conflict in today’s world is rooted in the fact that we as a nation have not told our story very accurately, or at least very completely, and certainly not from the perspective of all citizens. And we are fed this narrative constantly. It is all around us: on our commemorative landscape and even on our license plates in North Carolina. North Carolina has an option for a license plate that says, “First in Freedom” because of North Carolina’s role in arguing for independence from England. But don’t tell that to the more than one hundred thousand enslaved people in this state in 1790. One-fourth of all people living here were enslaved. First in freedom is a lie.
For hundreds of years this narrative has been dominated by rich, White people. But what happens when you flip the narrative? What happens when you start the story of George Washington not with him chopping down a cherry tree, but of ripping the teeth out of his enslaved people to make dentures for himself. Or what happens when you start the story of Thomas Jefferson not with studying architecture by candlelight, but of being born into a wealthy slave-owning family and then raping his fourteen-year-old female slave Sally Hemings. These are complex stories, but until recently a lot has been cut out; people and events have been erased.
One of the things that is so interesting to me lately are conversations on diversity, affirmative action, and reparations. I really don’t have a formulated blanket position on all of these issues, but history here – and this idea of telling our regional stories – is absolutely essential to these conversations. They change everything when you know the history. And it doesn’t necessarily have to be about blame or guilt. Going back to my conversation with that older man, the Black-White wealth gap is not only the product of legal racial discrimination. It is also the product of billions and billions of dollars being given to White people to help them build their wealth. Even though White people did not experience racial discrimination in the same way as Blacks, many of them certainly had their own challenges. It’s admirable that White people created institutions and built homes and started companies, but what about all the help that they received to do that? UNC-Chapel Hill is just one of thousands of examples all over this country. On our campus, we have buildings and streets named for our benefactors. Some of those names have been removed in recent months after the George Floyd protests, but we have plenty more. And those names do work; they tell a story. They tell the story of the great White men that built this place.
But what if I told you that those people didn’t actually build the campus, they didn’t actually raise or donate the money that created the incredible institution that we all love now? They played a role, certainly, and their names are all over the campus, but none of them is essential for what we have today. Do you know who is? Franklin Roosevelt and the taxpayers. Guess how they got the money to build the campus hotel, the campus power plant, classrooms, the gym, the dining hall, and the dorms? The federal government poured hundreds of millions of dollars into the institution. And when the federal government did that, only White people could attend UNC or work on its faculty. Was the law necessarily racist? Not exactly. Did the New Deal and programs like it subsidize White segregation, White institution building, White wealth? Yes. Across town in Durham, there is a Black institution named North Carolina Central University that does not have the facilities or the prestige of UNC-Chapel Hill. The quiet part of the narrative that we don’t say out loud is that they had Black founders who could not build what White people were able to build. Well, go build them a new gym, a new classroom building, new dorms, a hotel, a power plant. Give them hundreds of millions of more dollars than you give to UNC over the course of the next seventy years and let’s see what those institutions look like.
What if we applied this to a different walk of life? What if we take the medical profession, for example? Some of you may be familiar with The Flexner Report of 1910, commissioned by the Carnegie Foundation. It rated American medical schools and it changed American medical education by saying basically that medical schools needed to be more scientific and research-based; they needed to be attached to major research universities. And states needed to help fund these medical schools and build these medical facilities so that their medical schools could be accredited. We lost about half of the for-profit medical schools in this country because of the recommendations in The Flexner Report. Well, it just so happened that this new model was employed at many places that did not allow Blacks to train. So medical schools had to be well-funded research centers, the government had to invest millions of dollars to build them, but at the same time state governments literally made it illegal for the medical schools to accept Black trainees. So, what happens then to the number of Black doctors in the states where most Black people live? The reason we have fewer Black doctors now is because we had fewer back then. And this is just the tip of the iceberg.
It’s incredibly ironic because we are told that Black people are the ones who become dependent on government handouts if they receive Medicaid or unemployment insurance. In this country, we have this “great White man myth.” We had a lot of great White men, of course, but they often had a lot of help. When you know this history, when you know this story, it fundamentally changes modern discussions over issues like diversity, affirmative action, reparations, and reconciliation. It also suggests that the state – our federal and state governments – played very active roles in creating the systems and structures that led to racial disparities; institutions like UNC-Chapel Hill did as well. Segregation is not just a minor inconvenience or a footnote; it is the whole damn story. And if you understand the role of the state and of institutions in creating these disparities, then you probably realize that it is essential for the state and for our institutions to play active roles in dismantling these disparities.
John Aldrich, elected a Fellow of the American Academy in 2001, is Pfizer-Pratt University Professor of Political Science at Duke University.
Let me offer a minor footnote to William’s wonderful presentation. Ira Katznelson has written a terrific book, When Affirmative Action Was White, for those who may be interested in reading about racial inequality in twentieth-century America.
My brief remarks will focus on the political changes that we have witnessed in North Carolina and in the South, in general. An important lesson in all of this is that we need to be telling stories, but we also need to try to understand the people who have very different stories to tell. As we read in the Academy’s Our Common Purpose report, our problems are going to require real institutional changes. So, let me start by talking about the changes from the Jim Crow South to the contemporary South, including North Carolina.
By far the most important part of understanding the Jim Crow laws was the design by White elites to try to recreate a system that was akin to slavery. But there was a second dimension, a second purpose, and that was to ensure that there would be no organized, regular competition for office to upset the White Southern Democratic majority. They eliminated not only African Americans from the electorate but poor Whites. The fear of upper middle-class White people was that they would lose to a coalition of African Americans and the White rural working class.
Now in the 1950s, this system begins to come under serious threat. In the presidential elections in 1956, 49 percent of North Carolinians cast their vote for Eisenhower. There was a large group of people who were willing to support the Republicans. There were 11 members from North Carolina in Congress at that time. In a good Democratic year, there would be ten Democrats and one Republican from the mountains. In a good Republican year, there would be nine Democrats and two Republicans. That was the range. The Southern White Democratic Party had effectively eliminated any long-term organized opposition. Changing that reality took a very long time.
In 1972, we had Nixon’s landslide reelection. Jesse Helms was the first Republican senator elected from the state, and James Holshouser was the first Republican governor. Helms won with 54 percent of the vote. In 1980, we had a second Republican senator, John East, and John Martin was elected as the second Republican governor. The House majority was still Democratic. But in 1994, Newt Gingrich lead a revolution and for the first time after the 1994 elections there was a Republican majority – meaning a majority of the Republican delegation was from the South rather than from the North. It’s also the first time in fifty years that the Republicans had a majority in Congress.
As we have seen recently, solving fundamental social problems is going to require listening to people and trying to understand their problems. Will people care about wearing masks if they are worried about losing their homes and their health insurance because of the economic downside of the COVID-19 pandemic? That is the kind of story that we have to tell in addition to the powerful stories of individuals.
Paula D. McClain in James B. Duke Distinguished Professor of Political Science, Professor of Public Policy, Dean of the Graduate School, and Vice Provost for Graduate Education at Duke University. She was elected a Fellow of the American Academy in 2014.
Paula D. McClain: The first question is for all of our speakers. Given the immediate and timely problems our country is facing, why should it be a priority to look backwards and think about how we talk about the past?
William Sturkey: History can be a lot of different things. For many of us, it undergirds our sense of identity. It is the story of us, of who we are, of how we got here. It explains everything around us. And we interact with it all the time. There are lots of people who base their political identities on some interpretation of history, and I think that a lot of those interpretations have been flawed throughout the history of this country. As an educator and professor, I am frustrated by the amount of misinformation that drives so many voters. There are major political issues today and the people going to the polls may have attended segregated high schools or been raised in the Jim Crow South. I think we don’t have a better sense of some of the complicated aspects of our society because we haven’t been told the truth, or at least the whole truth.
John Aldrich: It so happens I was fortunate to take part in a survey over the summer about Southern political participation. It was a redo of a study that UNC political scientists conducted during the civil rights era. I received the survey results yesterday. On Confederate monuments, 36 percent of Whites Southerners agreed with the removal of these Confederate symbols; 70 percent of the remaining Whites disagreed strongly with their removal. Therefore, we have a long way to go to reach consensus.
Sturkey: Let me add one point. Tommy Tucker, one of the sponsors of our local North Carolina bill that prevents monument removal, once said, “The monuments can sit where they’ve been sitting for 150 years.” The monuments were not put there 150 years ago; that is a fundamental misunderstanding of history. This is one example of where understanding that history could really help inform a lot of people.
Phoebe Stein: To build on what Professor Sturkey has said, it was indeed White middle- and upper-class women who started some of these campaigns to erect these statues well after the Civil War. So, we have the layered symbolism of the construction and the role of many in holding onto this history and perpetuating it.
McClain: Phoebe, that was a nice segue into the next question, which I pose to you. What are the challenges in constructing a new narrative of the South? Given the legacy of the South, of the Confederacy, what are the challenges of getting people to let go of some of that?
Stein: I am not a historian, but I will say that I think it involves a lot of humility and a lot of understanding. We need to look at our assumptions and understand the history of them. We need to create a space that can invite that kind of self-examination, perhaps listening more than talking. We need to change the narrative and be willing to be uncomfortable. And this all stems with being in and with a community. It has to come from trust, but also from a willingness to be uncomfortable.
McClain: Congressman Price, you have been a champion of the humanities for a long time. From your perspective, why are initiatives like these important for our political system?
David E. Price: On the matter of narratives, I recently heard a story from a classmate who had talked to one of the first African-American students to come on the campus when we were there. And this man was talking about his early days on the campus and what a jolting experience it was to walk by the Silent Sam statue. And he said to my friend, “You know, in the subsequent four years on campus, I could never bring myself to walk there again.” Think about that. As a student, I was caught up in the civil rights movement. I was sympathetic. I was involved in the efforts to integrate the theaters and so on. But it never occurred to me what my fellow student was going through and how that felt in his life. Fifty years later we find this out because of a story.
We talk about policies and we get into political debates, but the different levels of understanding and empathy that stories bring are really important. We should not underestimate how much we need that depth of understanding and how far we fall short of it in our everyday discourse.
When the Academy published The Heart of the Matter a few years ago, it led me to reflect on my own liberal arts education, on my own humanities education. I feel very indebted to the people who taught me and to the reading and research I subsequently did for whatever understanding I have of the intellectual and political forces we are dealing with. For example, think of the anti-federalist opponents of the Constitution and the kind of anti-power ideology that continues to course through the American political system. I particularly value the communitarian strain in American political thought, and how that still speaks to our hyper-individualism and enduring conflicts. The tragic sense embodied in Lincoln’s second inaugural is iconic, but still represents a dissenting strain of thought: a sense of humility and a sense of the partiality of our own perspectives.
You can learn lots of things on the job, in Congress, or elsewhere, but the kind of understanding you gain from history and literature and theology is invaluable. People who are teaching and working in the humanities should never be on the defensive about their relevance. We ought to be shouting from the rooftops about the importance of the humanities and the kind of contribution they can make to our common understanding and common life.
© 2020 by David E. Price, Phoebe Stein, William Sturkey, John Aldrich, and Paula D. McClain, respectively
To view or listen to the presentation, visit www.amacad.org/events/narratives-unite-and-divide-north-carolina.