The story of African Americans is the story of America

Henry Louis Gates. Jr

My most recent letter from the editor, which now feels like it was written a lifetime ago, used a science fiction television show as a springboard for discussing the history of racism. Though the topic was serious, the focus on a surreal, alternate reality seems almost trivial now, a playful what-if that people could discuss at the dinner table or in the classroom.

And now, just a few months later, we find ourselves in a scenario that would be considered over-the-top as a premise for a science fiction movie. A global pandemic, an unraveling of our democratic norms, and a popular uprising against police brutality, the likes of which has not been witnessed in fifty years. All of this has laid bare, for anyone who still refuses to see, the entrenched obstacles to reform and justice in this country.

There are times when our work on AASC can seem so inadequate. This occasion feels especially dire. Our scholarship is pitted against a culture of alternative facts and post-truth rhetoric, as well as a demand for easy answers to complex questions. Over the last few years, AASC has tried to keep up with the unfolding events, mainly by adding biographies of the people who have fallen victim to racist violence. By now, you know their names. Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, among too many others. And we are now far behind on covering all the people who we think, we hope, will be the last one, the one whose death finally wakes up all the people who are in a position to change things for the better.

Still, the slow, steady work of the historian may prove in the long run to be the difference. The stories that we preserve on AASC still resonate today, as we see the same debates from our time playing out in the pivotal years of 1968, 1941, 1896, 1861, 1776. The same questions are being asked. Who gets to participate fully in the American experiment? How do we change the system when it fails us? Can such a large and perpetually changing democracy actually work for everyone?

The theme that keeps coming up in everything we do here is this: the story of African Americans is the story of America. It is a uniquely American story of people overcoming injustice and adversity, and moving forward, together. What recent events have proven is that far too many people look at that history and see nothing in it that relates to their own story. They see no connection between abolitionists and war heroes. They find nothing in common between Civil Rights activists and our Founding Fathers. And even worse, they want the rest of us to share in this cynical take on history. Rather than drawing hope and inspiration from our past, they expect us to view politics and progress as part of a zero-sum game, where only tribal victories matter.

Standing against all that will require arming ourselves with the facts, but it will also demand more of us. We don’t deserve an easy path forward. We may not even deserve a straight path forward. But with the world changing around us whether we like it or not, going back to the way things were can never again be an option.

Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
Editor in Chief
Oxford African American Studies Center
The Alphonse Fletcher University Professor, Harvard University
September 2020