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The Past and Its Uses

Osita Nwanevu
9 min read
The logo of The Baltimore Sun

Hey all. Let’s hop to it.


On Friday, The Baltimore Sun’s editorial board published a remarkable apology for the paper’s history of racist coverage. “Through its news coverage and editorial opinions, The Sun sharpened, preserved and furthered the structural racism that still subjugates Black Marylanders in our communities today,” they wrote. “African Americans systematically have been denied equal opportunity and access in every sector of life — including health care, employment, education, housing, personal wealth, the justice system and civic participation.” They might have stopped just about there, but this wasn’t a pro-forma, 1,500 word job. It’s extensive and detailed. An excerpt:

Among the paper’s offenses:
Classified ads selling enslaved people or offering rewards for their return, the first of which appeared just two months after the paper’s launch in May 1837;
Editorials in the early 1900s seeking to disenfranchise Black voters because, as The Sun opinion writers wrote, “the exclusion of the ignorant and thriftless negro vote will make for better political conditions” and to support racial segregation in neighborhoods to preserve what Sun writers called the “dominant and superior” white race;
A failure to hire any African American journalists before the 1950s, and too few Black journalists ever since;
The identification of Black people by race in articles into the early 1960s, until progressive readers threatened to cancel their subscriptions if the labels weren’t removed;
A reliance by too many of us for too long on the word of law enforcement over that of Black residents who said they were being improperly targeted by police;
A 2002 editorial dismissal of African American lawyer Michael Steele, running mate to gubernatorial candidate Robert Ehrlich, as bringing “little to the team but the color of his skin”;
A dearth of stories about issues relevant and important to non-white communities, and a failure to feature Black residents in stories of achievement and inspiration, rather than crime and poverty, on a level proportionate to that of their white counterparts.

The editorial then zooms in on a set of additional examples ⁠— from attempts to downplay the racism and anti-semitism of the legendary H.L. Mencken to the paper’s untroubled trust in information provided by the Baltimore Police Department. “The paper’s prejudice hurt people,” the Sun writes. “It hurt families, it hurt communities, and it hurt the nation as a whole by prolonging and propagating the notion that the color of someone’s skin has anything to do with their potential or their worth to the wider world.”

Some other publications have made similar moves since the Floyd protests in 2020. And seven years ago, The New Republic published a great, long excavation of its history on race and social issues by Jeet Heer. These are all positive signs of how much discourse on race has shifted over the last decade, but I left the Sun editorial feeling a little flat about it. As I’ve written before, reexamining history can help bring about material progress beyond emotional catharsis. Even putatively symbolic efforts like the campaigns to remove Confederate monuments can build political networks and experience for other causes and affirm an understanding that racial inequality has historical roots too deep to be addressed by moderate policies.

Still, apologies like the Sun’s are ultimately chronicles of damage that has already been done. In some cases, the damage might be reversed or redressed; in too many others, the principals are already dead. And the hope that a look back might invigorate policy efforts to help Baltimore’s black community runs into the same problem that journalism as a whole faces now ⁠— which I suppose is the problem the country as a whole faces now. There’s never been a straight line from right information to right action; as the illusion we’ve called American democracy crumbles, we can no longer assume there’s a connection of any kind between the two at all. A deeper understanding of what the federal government must do to address racial inequality hasn’t loosened Congress’ gears or corrected the biases inherent in our federal institutions. Subnationally, the efforts of activists and progressive politicians are constrained by Republican state tyrannies and the limited resources available to local governments.

In short, history matters both a lot and not a whit. I’ve mentioned it twice previously and I assure you this is the last time, but the latest issue of The Drift also happens to include a great essay by Nick Martin on these questions as they relate to the status of Native peoples. It’s a review of Exterminate All The Brutes, Raoul Peck’s HBO documentary miniseries, which was widely praised as a frank and often graphic study of colonization in the Americas. “For a brief moment, I was lulled into believing what both Peck and the critics said, that the existence of a radical work on HBO must be a marker of progress — if not for all of the U.S., then at least for its entertainment industry,” he writes. “But the further away I got from my first encounter with the film, the less I found revelatory about Peck’s thesis and the bloated project around it — and the less I felt comforted by the cooing critics.”

The historical realities Peck depicts are palpable in our present; does a graphic depiction of this information help us understand our situation any differently? Other tribes have had their cultural and religious ceremonies erased from living memory, their children ripped from their homes and herded into boarding schools. They were forcibly removed. They were massacred. They were starved. Must they sit through four hours of the most traumatizing moments in our histories in order to grasp that our struggles are broadly similar, or that America is a nation founded atop our broken bodies and stolen lands?

It’s a different work both in medium and in content, but the historian Matthew Karp and others have leveled similar criticisms at the 1619 Project.

In the years following Trump’s election, liberal attitudes toward original American “sins” have confused the landscape. “Rather than mine the past for usable politics,” historian Matthew Karp wrote in a recent Harper’s essay, “thinkers now travel in the opposite direction, from present injustice to historical crime.” The Confederate symbolism displayed at the January sixth Capitol riot is framed by mainstream Democrats as yet another blood-soaked opportunity to come together, while the New York Times’s “1619 Project” wins a Pulitzer Prize. But holding the hand of our oppressor or heaping praise on the Times does not challenge America’s right to exist, nor does it ask white liberals to give up the empire that made them dominant. Just as the descendants of America’s slave trade and Jim Crow policies are entitled to trillions of federally-sourced dollars in reparations, Indigenous nations should be economically, legally, and politically free from the settler state. But neither aim feels neatly compatible with the aims of white progressives, because such initiatives demand an actual shift in political and financial power. Narrative reckonings can be good starts; as Michel-Rolph Trouillot wrote in his 1995 book, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History, “The ultimate mark of power may be its invisibility; the ultimate challenge, the exposition of its roots.” But it’s not enough to locate the roots; we must rip them from the earth.
The exchange of power and land is what most frightens the individuals and institutions that are supposedly on our side. Unwilling to go back to a naive belief in the pure and virtuous roots of the United States, but equally unwilling to give up control, they try to compromise. They lend their voice, but not their hand, with the universal language of the Indigenous Ally: the land acknowledgement. Well-meaning museums, universities, art forums, and plenty of others use it — something like “We stand on Lenape lands” is the typical phrasing. This is empty symbolism. Institutions that perform land acknowledgments, essentially pointing to the people whose land their founders stole, without attempting anything that might right the wrong, exist in a nebulous space between apathy and empathy. The statements present as good practice for any organization seeking to perform its guilt or shame for the public, without actually requiring them to fundamentally shift their position or repatriate their lands. The ultimate goal for many activists is not to arrive at a place where everyone knows who used to own the land — it is to set about restoring that land, and undoing that harm.

If awareness is the first step, what’s the second? And how do we get there given that awareness is being promulgated chiefly by institutions uninterested in straying too far from the status quo?

In the wake of the 1619 Project, many have argued that our counternarratives to the American mythologies we’ve inherited should be animating ones ⁠— if we really want to move forward, it’s been said, we have to tell ourselves constructive stories about the past rather than merely destructive ones. Personally, I don’t really see why getting people behind a positive vision of the future would necessarily require them getting on the same page about the past; the impulse to reach an apologetic but ultimately positive consensus about American history seems like a way of fencing ourselves in ideologically to the benefit of institutions that, again, want us feeling sorry instead of feeling radically empowered.

What we need is truth without despair. That is the thing to reach for. Is it possible? Every journalist ought to believe so on some level. But every journalist also ought to understand that as clearly, and as dispassionately, and as thoroughly as you might render something for a reader or a viewer, you cannot make them believe it. The fact that the evils of the American past almost defy comprehension altogether is an added challenge⁠. The more I read about slavery, the less I feel I know about it ⁠— not in a factual sense, but, I suppose, a in spiritual one. The facts are only the surviving outermost layer of a larger, wholly unabsorbable reality. I understand what happened in 1619. And yet 1619 remains fundamentally inaccessible to me. And if it’s inaccessible to me, how could it ever be made accessible to those with every reason to believe, or to pretend to believe, the best about our history? The blind cannot be cured by the power of intention.

However the history wars shake out, everything depends on whether we can tell people compelling truths about the future ⁠— on whether even people who think about the past differently might join together in the belief that a substantially better world than the one we’ve got now is truly within reach. I have extremely deep doubts about the possibility of broad consensus on that front too, but as a political matter, we’re probably better off leaning on visions of what might and could be rather than hopes that we might truly absorb what was, even if accounts of the past do have a role to play in building a rationale for change among sympathetic constituencies.

Again, I don’t think those visions would have to be or depend upon “myths” and there’s a latent condescension to arguments that they should. ‘We intellectuals might be able to think concretely about where society ought to go, but ordinary people think in fables and folktales ⁠— without the right stories, told from above, they’ll never find their way anywhere.’ I don’t think this is true; routinely throughout history, elite fantasies and mythologies have been waylaid by clear-thinking, ordinary people making material demands. The myth of the necessary myth should be the next one on the chopping block.

Reasons To Be Cheerful

The New York Times just ran a delightful interview with Marc Brown, the creator of Arthur, which is coming to the end of its more than 25 year (!) run on PBS.

Have you been surprised by the reaction?
It was wonderful to see the response. I’m still getting many messages on my Instagram page: “Is Arthur really over?” I love seeing reactions from these young adults who grew up with Arthur, the fact that these characters are still fresh in their minds. It’s great that he’s touched so many people so deeply that they want him to continue.
In the first book, “Arthur’s Nose,” Arthur looked like an aardvark with a long snout, not a mouse with glasses. What happened?
The second book, “Arthur’s Eyes,” came from when my son Tolon was getting glasses. He came home and said, “Dad, I thought all my friends were better-looking.” You can’t make that up! So of course Arthur had glasses, too. As the series went on, I just got to know him better, and he became more lovable and more humanlike — and his nose got shorter. It was not intentional!
Have you ever met an aardvark?
[Laughs.] I haven’t had any encounters with aardvarks, although I think there may be one that lives in an apartment across the street.
[...] When The New York Times talked to you in 1996 — shortly after the first episodes aired — you were getting 100,000 letters a year from kids. How much fan mail do you get these days?
I get letters asking for Francine’s phone number — well, Francine [a monkey character on the show] doesn’t have a phone number! Years ago, I was really stupid: In the book “Arthur’s Thanksgiving,” I put our home phone number in a little illustration of a bulletin board that says “Call Arthur at 749-7978.” Every Thanksgiving, the phone began to ring and ring and ring. My wife, Laurie, had the best response. You’d hear a little voice say: “Hello? Is Arthur there?” And she’d say, “No, he’s at the library.” That was when we lived outside Boston; it went on for a few years!

A Song

"New World A Comin'" - Duke Ellington

Good night.