Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois, educator, writer and co-chairman of the U.S. delegation, addresses the World Congress of Partisans of Peace in Paris, France, April 22, 1949. (AP Photo)
For too long, we have looked in the wrong place and race for the genesis of our national story.
By David Levering Lewis Yesterday 3:50 pm
EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is an adapted and abridged version of the remarks delivered in May by David Levering Lewis upon receiving this year’s Arthur Meier Schlesinger, Jr., Distinguished Service Award from the Society of American Historians.
I find myself these days on the cusp of despairing over the cruel mischief long wrought by the paradigm known as “American exceptionalism.” I ask myself, why should I not conclude that what has been exceptional about our exceptionalist national narrative are the historic exceptions to it—notably, people of color?
Down the long corridor of interrupted progress from slavery to freedom, Africans in America have been unique victims and unimpeachable critics of a nation corrupted at its inception by a political economy anchored to race. Manumitted by war, politically empowered under Reconstruction, betrayed, disenfranchised, and re-subjugated during the 50-year nadir of Plessy v. Ferguson, African-Americans emerged from World War II a national people, urbanized, GI Bill–literate, occupationally diverse, but a people still forced and favored by history to pursue the role of redeemers of their nation’s founding egalitarian dogma.
Their great era began with the 1960s. If ever a time of epic breakthrough belonged to a single people, the racial, abortion, gender, immigration, gay, and handicapped rights channeled from the 1960s and ’70s were black people’s gifts to the nation. Even so, yet another great American deception for people of color was already in the making, as C. Vann Woodward and John Hope Franklin famously forecast: a Second Reconstruction that ended, like the first, with hard-won social and economic progress undermined and reversed by a triumphant Reaganism determined to nullify what survived of the New Deal, until most Americans finally recoiled from the consequences of their own electoral folly.
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