x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

The angle of history

Books Simon Schama's new book looks back at the American past from the vantage point of Barack Obama's election. Katherine Marino shares the view.

Past imperfect, future progressive: President-elect Barack Obama's rise to office has invited a cascade of historical associations, with many observers viewing his election in a rich, layered historical context.
Past imperfect, future progressive: President-elect Barack Obama's rise to office has invited a cascade of historical associations, with many observers viewing his election in a rich, layered historical context.

Simon Schama's new book looks back at the American past from the vantage point of Barack Obama's election. Katherine Marino shares the view.
The American Future: A History Simon Schama The Bodley Head Dh108
To a greater degree than US presidents-elect of recent past, Barack Obama has been a lightning rod for historical allusions. He has been linked in the national imagination to transformative forebears, including historic black rights leaders Frederick the Douglass, WEB Du Bois and Martin Luther King, Jr, and former presidents Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D Roosevelt and John F Kennedy Jr. In his book The American Future: A History, written before the election but forecasting Obama's victory, Simon Schama both traffics in and trascends these comparisons. A prominent British professor of history and art history at Columbia University, Schama sees in Obama "the living force of history." His latest book, however, is not a biography of or political treatise on Obama, but is rather a sweeping reorientation of American history itself through the prism of this moment so many have called "historic". His book is an attempt to explore how the nation's identity, politics and history are all interconnected, and how the familiar narrative of US history changes when the political present changes as dramatically as he hopes it will with Obama's election.

Thus, putting the past in conversation with the present, Schama relies on an unconventional mix of history, current events and memoir, sprinkled with snippets of conversations from the primary campaign trail (also used in his coinciding four-part BBC documentary of the same name). This roaming approach has left the author vulnerable to criticism that the book is a jumble of anecdotes and name-drops punctuated by too-brief interludes of "good history," all in the service of neutralising anti-Americanism. Indeed, in the book's four sections - American War, American Fervour, What is an American? and American Plenty - Schama does work to complicate and amend charges of American bellicosity, religious fanaticism, xenophobia and greed. In the context of America's Iraq imbroglio, for instance, Schama seeks to show readers that a warrior culture is not endemic to the nation. He goes back to the creation of West Point in 1882, revealing that Thomas Jefferson's goal in creating the institution, overriding Alexander Hamilton's idea of a "military republic", was to create good citizens, to "deny the US its Caesars... and to ensure permanent victory of liberalism over militarism."

However, this is by no means a hagiography of the United States. What the book's critics have largely missed is that, within Schama's meandering historical pastiche and panache-filled prose, there is a crucial central theme: the nation's tragedy of race relations. For a nation founded on liberty, democracy, and "all men being equal", contradictions based on race have been both flagrant and persistent. According to Schama, this is what the US needs to remember in order to reassess its priorities today and move towards a more democratic future.

He starts with the Civil War, traces the fight to vanquish segregation, and returns several times to 1965 to celebrate the first decisive commitment to enforce the Voting Rights Act under Lyndon B Johnson. His first section, American War, focuses on the Civil War, which he presents decisively as a war over slavery and "for American freedom", rather than as a battle for state's rights, a common view of the conflict. In American Fervor, Schama stresses the dangers of evangelical religion but also stresses the historical importance of religious freedom guaranteed under the first amendment. In a brief discussion of Jeremiah Wright (Obama's embattled pastor of 20 years), he points out that black separatist churches have historically been extremely important to the survival of black American communities. He devotes much space to Jarena Lee, the little-known early nineteenth-century itinerant black woman preacher, including excerpted pages from her diary, which Schama describes as "one of the great unread black narratives." Furthermore, he points out that religion played a major part in the moral suasion that shamed slaveholders and segregationists both in the 19th century and in the 1960s.

What is an American? and American Plenty further underline themes of race relations and white supremacism. Schama demonstrates how interpretations of e pluribus unum (out of many, one) have shifted over time to exclude various groups, such as the Mexicans whose existence in the United States preceded the arrival of Anglo-Americans. He also details the brutal massacres of Chinese immigrant railway workers on the West Coast in the nineteenth century that led to the National Act of 1870, which said no Chinese immigrant could ever be qualified for citizenship, and the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act.

These themes of slavery and race relations are nothing new, and historians have been charting and uncovering them for the past 40 years, but their place in Americans' historical self-understanding is still limited. Integration of these themes into American history classes has been slow and hesitant. In 1995, a round of "history wars" erupted after Lynne Cheney, chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, lambasted the very National History Standards she had commissioned because they breached a traditional triumphalist narrative of United States history. These standards asked, among other things, that students be able to provide "the arguments for and against affirmative action" and "for and against ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment," as well as identify the significance of Harriet Tubman and the Ku Klux Klan. Critiqued by Cheney for a being "politically correct" and "revisionist" for focusing on American multiculturalism and on its failings while giving "white males... little or no notice," the standards were disapproved by the Senate on a vote of 99-1.

Schama is arguing for the prominent enstatement of these unsettling themes of race in America's historical understanding of itself. He is promoting a message that the late great historian of slavery, George Fredrickson perhaps expressed best: slavery and racism are "not incidental or secondary aspects of American history but constitute its central theme." In recentering the national historiographical narrative, Schama balances the "pluribus" with the "unum". He emphasises not only the nation's blindness and bigotry regarding race, but also the optimism, agency and self-determination of key unsung historical players in righting these wrongs. For instance, the fierce determination of Jarena Lee, belied the histories Schama read at school decades ago, in which "American slaves before the Civil War were never capable of shaking off their chains, mental as well as physical, except by flight?[or] wait[ing] for deliverance at the hands of white evangelical abolitionists."

Schama also introduces the civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer into the historical canon as an embodiment of self-deterministic protest and change. Born the grandchild of slaves in the Mississippi Delta and forced into sterilisation in her youth, Hamer grew up to become a local organiser of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the 1960s. Despite being brutally beaten by police in 1963, she organised the "Mississippi Freedom Summer" in 1964, which sought to register as many African Americans as possible to vote (at a time when only 7,000 out of 450,000 blacks in the state were registered), and spoke out at the 1964 Democratic National Convention as the vice chair of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. Forcing the Democrats to live up to their democratic ideals, she became an undeniable political force who opened the doors of the electoral process to thousands of African Americans. An awestruck Schama witnessed Hamer's public testimony at the 1964 convention during his first visit the United States as undergraduate reporter for the Cambridge Opinion. It is only by writing figures such as Fannie Lou Hamer into the country's narrative, he seems to be saying here, that the United States can hope to live up to its multicultural civic nationalism.

For Schama, it is upon Fannie Lou Hamer's shoulders, more than those of Thomas Jefferson or Martin Luther King, Jr, that Barack Obama stands. The links between the nation's history of troubled race relations and of inspirational democratic change are embodied in Obama's ascendancy to the presidency. Obama's victory does not now mean that America can forget about the history of race or race itself. Rather, it is only by remembering this historical heritage that the country can better understand its anxious present, and strive for a future more in line with its egalitarian ideals.

Katherine Marino is a graduate student in history at Stanford University.