[The next few paragraphs are excerpted from chapter two of Autobiography of an Ex-White Man]
Freedom is the theme of the story told by these historians surveying the American experience. Their central analytical idea is Exceptionalism, an idea first given expression by Alexis de Tocqueville. Exceptionalism has served as the guiding thread of both scholarly explications and patriotic invocations for more than a century and a half. America, it is said, is the exception to the generalizations of historians, political scientists, and sociologists, to the time-tested laws of historical evolution defining and constraining men and women and nations in the
Unlike all other nations that have ever existed, according to this story,
Thus, everything that happens in
America is the Great Exception in other ways as well, the historians tell us. Alone among all the great nations of the world,
And finally, because
This celebratory self-congratulation is not merely the stuff of political speeches and Fourth of July oratory. It was, until very recently, the considered judgment of serious scholars, honored in the Academy and inscribed in the professional monographs on which generations of secondary and college textbooks drew for their account of the American story. But heart-warming as this story is, at least if you have not the misfortune to be a Native American or the descendant of a slave, it is simply not true.
Let me be clear about what I am asserting, because the truly revolutionary thrust of Afro-American Studies can be lost through misunderstanding. The traditional story is partial, to be sure, in its slighting of the doings of women, of working-class people, of Native Americans, and of people of color. But that failing can easily be rectified, if one is willing to add some pages to one's narrative. A quick look at the most recent edition of Bailey's text is suggestive. The franchise is now managed by two extremely distinguished professional historians: Lizabeth Cohen, the Howard Mumford Jones Professor of American Studies at Harvard and David M. Kennedy, the Donald J. McLachlan Professor of History at Stanford. In an effort to be unimpeachably inclusive, these authors have expanded the text to 1248 pages. The book [which surely no student is actually expected to read all the way through] begins not with the arrival of the pilgrims or even with Columbus' voyage of exploration, but with a chapter entitled "New World Beginnings: 33,000 B.C.E. - 1769 C.E." Everyone, including the mastodons now extinct, will get at least a passing mention!
If lack of inclusiveness were the central problem, then in an age more sensitive to the feelings of subaltern populations [as it has now become fashionable to say] the difficulty could be rectified by textbook chapters, courses, or entire programs devoted to the Black experience, the Native American experience, the Latino/a experience, the Woman's experience, the Asian-American experience, the LGBT experience, and even the German-American, Polish-American, Italian-American, Swedish-American, and Hmong-American experience. If budgetary constraints preclude the creation of a separate administrative unit devoted to the study of each of these fractions of the American experience, then as a compromise a Department of Ethnic Studies can be brought into existence, with care taken not to recreate in Academia the experience of ghettoization.
But the story told by our historians upon a hill is not incomplete. It is wrong, through and through. America is not exceptional. It was not founded to be the embodiment of an Idea. And it is not Liberty but a complex, dare I say dialectical, relationship between bound labor and free labor that has defined America's nature from the seventeenth century to the present day. These are provocative claims, to be sure, and they will require a good deal of explanation and defense. The mission of Afro-American Studies, since it burst upon the academic scene in the nineteen-sixties, has been to expose these myths and set the record straight. That is why, during its entire half century career, it has been a site of struggle within the Academy, in a way that Diasporic Studies, Cultural Studies, and Africana Studies have not been.
Tomorrow, we shall begin to explore these claims.