Former President Donald Trump’s 1776 Commission may not have lasted long—he created it by executive order in November 2020 and President Joe Biden dismantled it two months later, also by executive order, on his first day in office—but it exists within a long history of reinterpreting the history of slavery in the U.S., say two Northeastern scholars of civil rights and race.
The commission published one report, a 45-page, unsourced document that claimed to be “a definitive chronicle of the American founding.” The report minimizes the weight and consequences of slavery, painting the institution as a “challenge to America’s principles,” rather than a fundamental aspect of its founding.
“It re-interprets the meaning of slavery in the U.S. story in favor of this notion that America’s better angels have guided the country from its founding and continue to represent the heart of what it means to be an American,” says Margaret Burnham, university distinguished professor of law and director of the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project at Northeastern.
The report and all mentions of the commission have since been scrubbed from the White House website; it is accessible only through White House archives. But the motivation behind its creation is not so easily wiped clean, Burnham says.
The report follows a long line of “rhetorical arguments that have been building to render obsolete the academic efforts, public education efforts, and civic initiatives that have sought to talk honestly about monuments to the Confederacy and the white supremacy they uphold,” she says.
The work of the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project—a group that investigates cold cases involving anti-civil rights violence in the United States dating back to the 1930s—is among those academic and civic efforts.
“I’m just one in a steady stream of scholars who have taken up this charge, but there are scholars all over the country that have begun to unpeel layers of history that we need fully to understand in order to figure out where we’re going,” Burnham says.
Patricia Davis, associate professor of communication studies at Northeastern who explores rhetoric, public memory, identity, race, gender, and representation, echoes Burnham’s sentiment.
Americans who ignore the “historical narratives that center the African American experience,” she says, “tend to foster delusion—you lose a true sense of self.”
“In leaving the uglier aspects out of the larger narrative of a country, everyone loses a part of themselves,” Davis says. “National identity is part of everyone’s identity, so when you leave large swathes out of the dominant stories, you are losing a part of yourself.”
Reclaiming that identity requires a clear-eyed vision of the history of the U.S., say both scholars, and in some parts of the country, attempts to do so are underway.
In 2018, a six-acre memorial dedicated to victims of white supremacy opened in Alabama, a state awash with Confederate monuments. Just last month, Mississippi officials voted to install a marker to remember the Black people who were lynched by white mobs between 1885 and 1935, right next to a statue that commemorates Confederate soldiers.
These new monuments “help to rebuild our public spaces to accurately reflect the events that transpired in this country,” Burnham says.
Additionally, using phrases such as “white supremacy” to describe the motive behind systemic racism—as Biden did during his inaugural address—helps to rebuild our public vocabulary, she says.
And retooling the ways we commemorate and talk about the history of the U.S. “helps us move from a place of talking about individual biases to the structural underpinnings of race in our country,” Burnham says, adding, “If you’re going to dismantle these structures, you have to understand how they manifest.”