Confessing the Past, Connecting the Dots in American History

By: Matthew Rowley

November 17, 2021

Who Belongs at the Thanksgiving Table? Christianity, History, and Immigration

Thanksgiving is one of America’s most inclusive and divisive holidays. Shouts of gratitude intermingle with cries of mourning. A welcoming feast is prepared on someone else’s ancestral lands. Those who fondly remember Thanksgiving think of the 1621 event as a time of harmony, gratitude, and cooperation between vulnerable peoples. Those who mourn Thanksgiving focus on how colonial history unfolded, becoming a story of violence and exclusion.

Increased historical reflection often contributes to polarization; it drives Americans apart. This is exemplified by the left-praised 1619 Project and the right-praised 1776 Commission. History can also bridge some of the divide. To accomplish this, we need more overlap in what we remember. Shared memory will not erase political differences, but it might make debate more civil, enlightening, and productive. 

Americans from across the political spectrum need to become more adept at confessing the past and connecting the dots. When I speak of confessing the past, I do not mean a confession of guilt. Sometimes confessions of guilt are necessary, as when a living person might confess their role in stirring anti-Muslim sentiment after 9/11. Confessing history is more like a confession of faith. A confession of faith does not claim to create truth; it assents to truth. Those confessing the past assent to the fact that “these things happened.” Land theft happened. Slavery happened. Internment camps happened. Confession acknowledges that these features—and many more—belong to the story Americans tell about the past. 

We need more overlap in what we remember. Shared memory will not erase political differences, but it might make debate more civil, enlightening, and productive. 

However, Americans fundamentally disagree about what elements should form the core of our national memory. They disagree over what to remember and what to forget. In a recent book, Trump and the Protestant Reaction to Make America Great Again, I explored three approaches to American history—particularly when that history relates to racism, sexism, and exploitation. 

Those who praise the 1619 Project tend to fear that claims to American greatness paper over a long history of injustice (what I call the “Make America Lament” view of history). They fear that injustice in the present rages unchecked because injustice in the past remains unconfronted. Their approach to history emphasizes the negative, almost to the exclusion of anything positive. They want to unravel self-congratulatory historical myths so that the nation can move toward justice and equality for all, for the first time. Since they do not want to short-circuit the process of national repentance, they seem unwilling to confess the good. And they tend to experience change as progress, viewing maintainers of the status quo as obstacles.

In contrast, those who praise the 1776 Commission see this document as a defense of a noble and inspiring past (what I call the “Make America Great Again” view of history). Opponents on the left are interpreted as hell-bent on destroying everything good about America. If the left succeeds, the right and their history will become refugees. They fear that criticism of the past will devolve into destruction, indiscriminately consuming the good with the bad. Therefore, they are often reluctant to confess the bad. They tend to experience change as loss, cultural and religious. Trump gave voice to their sense of loss, promising to do something about it.

There is a third response that I call the “Make America Better” approach to history. Proponents of this view come from both sides of the political aisle. They agree that America needs to lament, and lament deeply. However, they take a crucial step beyond lamentation and embrace what is best in history. In confessing the bad, they also confess the good. Confessing the good requires interpreting persons, documents, and events in context. By looking for historical progress, they note how the struggle for justice is animated by ideals that are close to the heart of American history—even when those espousing these ideals were short-sighted or hypocritical. For those in the “Make America Better” camp, the ideal America sits awkwardly with the real America. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Barack Obama, for example, were critical of the nation’s failures, but by confessing the good, they pushed Americans to live up to their high ideals.

Martin Luther King, Jr., and Barack Obama, for example, were critical of the nation’s failures, but by confessing the good, they pushed Americans to live up to their high ideals.

Americans also need to become more skilled at connecting the dots. The past (the bad and the good) is not quarantined from the present. America’s enduring failures are, in part, owing to the past, as are America’s high ideals. To connect the past and present, we need a knowledge of the distant past, a knowledge of the present, and a knowledge of the many events connecting the two. 

Americans need to become familiar with more portions of their history. Consider Native American history. Pocahontas and Plymouth loom large. Most Americans vaguely remember colonial wars. Indigenous peoples pop up again during the Trail of Tears and the Wild West. But American Indians recede into the memory landscape and run casinos until, seemingly out of nowhere, they appear protesting the construction of a pipeline in the Dakotas. In other words, many Americans have only a hazy picture of Native American history. However, dynamic and diverse Native American communities have been an essential part of pre-colonial, colonial, and U.S. history at every stage. How can white Americans foster fairness toward these Americans when they forget most of their history?

Similarly, we should consider present-day disparities between many African Americans and many whites alongside accounts from America’s deep past—particularly forced migration, chattel slavery, and Jim Crow. But what connects modern disparities with this deep past? In Learning from the Germans: Race and the Memory of Evil, Susan Neiman has argued that most white Americans have a century-long memory gap:

There are several reasons for American slowness in facing our history, and one is fairly simple: there’s a hundred-year hole in it, and few white Americans are even aware of that. For most of us, the period between the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation and the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott is a vague and cloudy blur.

Surely many white Americans remember white history over this century, but much of what the African American community did, and what was done to them, is forgotten. Recovering this history reconnects the past and present.

History brings us face-to-face with persons, ideas, and events that are uncomfortable and inspiring. I like to talk of standing in “awe” of historical persons, and one can stand in awe of a saint or a swindler. Most persons, in the past and present, are somewhere in between. Recovering a complex history may help bridge polarization so that the push for justice and equality can be a bipartisan effort. This requires talking about the past in open, humble, charitable, and self-critical ways.

However, nations, like people, often resist discussing family history—particularly because family knows where the fault lines are in the relationship. It is often said that politics and religion should not be discussed in polite company. Will history become a third thing that shall not be named this Thanksgiving? If national self-reflection and critique are framed as a sign of national maturity, then perhaps the discussion will be productive.

This post is adapted from Matthew Rowley, “Many Great Migrations: Colonial History and the Contest for American Identity,” The Review of Faith & International Affairs 19, no.3 (2021): 5–19.

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