For the Civic-Minded:
A good origin story becomes the foundation for every story that follows. From these stories, our favorite heroes derive superpowers and a purpose. Efforts of corrupt politicians to cast the hero as an enemy of the law come undone when the public decides to rally around the hero.
When historian Woody Holton asked, "Why does it have to be slaveholders that we unite around?" he had a fundamental truth about public behavior in mind. Holton explained:
"Whether you're a great scholar like him [Gordon Wood] or you're somebody disrupting a school board meeting in somewhere in Ohio, what you have in common is a belief that we've got to have these heroes in common, or we're going to just dissolve as a nation into civil war."
We risk giving up a shared purpose when we no longer agree on these familiar heroes. At least, that's the perspective Holton wanted us to approach with some empathy.
Chalkbeat recently published two maps to help us see this divide. One map shows 36 states making efforts to restrict education on race or bias, and another that shows 17 states attempting to expand the study of these topics. The narrative accompanying the map notes, "The impact of these discussions on classrooms is being felt," and they link to an article that includes teacher and student voices, "Not getting into it: How critical race theory laws are cutting short classroom conversations."
There's no superpower in refusing to answer difficult questions. Instead, honest inquiries often help us understand our origins and our purposes.
Last March, Danielle Allen told her own story of discovering "the first American to publicly use the language of the Declaration of Independence for a political purpose other than justifying war against Britain." She wrote about Prince Hall in her essay "A Forgotten Black Founding Father" (part of The Atlantic's "Inheritance" project). Danielle writes that Hall's story is important for two reasons. First, we should celebrate a lifetime of petitioning lawmakers to "do us that justice," but he can also help us see "the promise of an integrated way of studying and teaching history."
Doing so—especially for figures and communities that have been overlooked—gives us a chance to tell a whole story, to weave together multiple perspectives on the events of our political founding into a single, joined tale. It also provides an opportunity to draw out and emphasize the agency of people who experienced oppression and domination.
There's power for all of us in recognizing these stories of agency—of being driven by a shared purpose.
When we recast the origin story of the United States as an unfinished revolution, we reveal a whole cast of heroes we can rally around. The principles they worked to make real also become more central to understanding the story.
When Reverend C.T. Vivian and John Lewis passed in 2020, Adam Serwer wrote that they "were leaders of an incomplete revolution that remade American society." He proposed that we consider the story of what he calls the Third American Republic— "the only one to sincerely pursue the promises of the Declaration of Independence and the first true attempt at interracial democracy." The founders of this Republic included people like Vivian, Lewis, Diane Nash, and Coretta Scott King:
"They are part of a third generation of American leaders who elevated the universal truths in Christian doctrine and the words of the 1776 Founders, and shamed the nation into deciding that these ideals meant something."
That's a story that's big enough for all of us.
Stories create community, enable us to see through the eyes of other people, and open us to the claims of others.
—Peter Forbes, Photographer and author
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For Your Reading List
This story made me gasp. Yes, it's about the potential war in Ukraine, but it doesn't include the names Biden, Putin, or Zeleneskyy. Instead, the story is about citizen-soldiers. CBS Mornings shared how civilians are completing military training, so they can be part of the response.
Watching the video at home, I asked my husband, "Can you imagine?" He answered no before I finished the question. Last month I had read Time magazine's profile of Alexei Navalny, "The Man Putin Fears." He insists that the West has the situation all wrong. I wanted to understand what it would take to get it right.
When I wake up in the morning, I don't just want to know what happened in Ukraine. I want to know:
What do I need to know to make sense of what's happening between Russia and the rest of the world at the border with Ukraine?
There are plenty of questions. Not all of them are easy to answer. For your reading list:
- David Leonhard's morning newsletter for The New York Times offers a great backgrounder for building context, Ukraine, ExplainedAnd why people are fearing war there.
Trying to understand Putin's thinking is where everything goes topsy-turvy.
Tom Nichols thinks the problem is that Putin "does not share a common frame of reference about the world with his opponents in the West." Read his essay in The Atlantic, "Only Putin Knows What Happens Next"
Or you could read everything Anne Applebaum writes on the subject. Her February 3rd essay for The Atlantic is an excellent place to start: The Reason Putin Would Risk War: He is threatening to invade Ukraine because he wants democracy to fail—and not just in that country..
If you missed "The Bad Guys are Winning," published last November, that will help you see all of the above as part of a global story.
For Believing in Democracy
- The first database of U.S congressmen who once enslaved people published by The Washington Post. The journalist behind the project, Julie Zauzmer Weil, shares her key takeaways and readers are helping her finish the project.
- Staff at The Innocence Project put together a Black History Month reading list that includes everything"From science fiction to memoirs to history, these are must-reads for any time of year." Check for titles you've read and titles you keep saying you'll read.
- Queer Eye's Karamo Brown launched a t-shirt collection that benefits NAACP's Legal Defense and Educational Fund and True Colors United. There are three designs, including one that reads, "Black History is more than slavery."