Magazine Feature

The Battle over the Past

A conversation with historian Annette Gordon-Reed on why history is ground zero in the culture wars of today

By Marilyn Cooper

Fall 2023

Presidential races usually focus squarely on the future of the United States. But from furor over positive depictions of slavery to conflicts about reparations, heated arguments about Black history have played a surprisingly large role in the 2024 election cycle—sometimes garnering as much attention as disagreements about the economy, health care, or future Supreme Court appointments. These political battles mirror the current fight over what K–12 and college US history classes should teach about race. Harvard University historian Annette Gordon-Reed explains that these debates are occurring because “many Americans now view and understand the past through the lens of contemporary politics.”

Gordon-Reed, who won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for History for her book The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family, has helped reshape the narrative of US history through a series of popular books that focus on the erased or forgotten stories of enslaved Black Americans. “Reclaiming the full breadth of Black history potentially changes how Americans view and understand current inequities. The ideological implications of this make some people anxious,” she says. “These attacks on history are, in large part, a reaction against a more inclusive society. In many ways, the battle about the past is really about the present.”

In the following conversation with Liberal Education, Gordon-Reed reflects on critical race theory, educational gag orders, the origins of the United States, history curricula, and the country’s struggle to find a shared national narrative.

In your talk at the 2023 annual meeting of the American Association of Colleges and Universities, you said, “History is ground zero in the current battles over education.” Why do you think that is?

Many people believe that if you can control the narrative of US history, you can control American society and culture. With the advent of the civil rights movement, the women’s rights movement, and other movements of once marginalized people, different individuals and groups have become part of our collective story. That’s caused historians to look at the past in different ways and to ask different questions. Some people are very dissatisfied with that and view this as an attack on traditional values and their personal beliefs. They want the old story about the power and actions of White males back rather than a version of American history that includes everyone. We’re fighting about what history says to us and what history says about us.

What’s your response to recent attacks on teaching critical race theory (CRT)?

Most people don’t know what CRT is—that makes it the perfect tool for scaring them. They incorrectly believe that CRT is anything that relates to race, and so they’re seeing it everywhere. In fact, CRT is a legal theory about the effects of systemic racism in a legal system. We don’t discuss CRT much in law schools, let alone teach it in K–12 classrooms. It’s being used as a scapegoat for other concerns. Conservative activist Christopher Rufo has said he deliberately engineered the right-wing panic over CRT to mobilize conservative voters against things that have nothing to do with it, such as the Black Lives Matter movement, reparations, and teaching African American history.

In the past, both conservatives and liberals celebrated stories such as Ruby Bridges integrating an all-White elementary school in Louisiana in 1960 as proof of American progress. It’s strange and sad to see stories and events that were once embraced by Americans across the political spectrum be suddenly treated as dangerous propaganda. Today, people in a variety of states are trying to ban books about Ruby Bridges.

What’s your view on laws limiting or restricting what schools, colleges, and universities can teach about race, American history, politics, sexual orientation, and gender identity?

It’s tragic, especially at the college level. It’s like we’re going through the Dark Ages—we’re trying to limit access to knowledge because we’re afraid of how people will respond to it. Students are supposed to receive a real picture of America. College students are adults. As faculty members, we do not indoctrinate our students. There’s no indication that teaching these topics in any way overwhelms students or negates their ability to think for themselves. We’re supposed to have an open inquiry at colleges and universities, not an indoctrination. You can indoctrinate students by leaving important things out. That’s dangerous. Limiting knowledge is never the way to go.

What’s your reaction to the controversy triggered by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’s threatening to ban a pilot Advanced Placement course in African American studies because it is “historically inaccurate” and “lacks educational value”?

This was an attempt to stoke political fury. I do not believe government should be involved in deciding what people can and cannot learn in this way. The main objection seems to have been about the inclusion of LGBTQ+ topics in an African American studies curriculum. This may have been an effort to drive a wedge between Black people and the gay community. There is a stereotype of African Americans being anti-LGBTQ+, but that’s increasingly not the case. And, of course, there are Black LGBTQ+ people. Author James Baldwin and civil rights leader Bayer Rustin were both gay, and both men played important roles in Black history.

How should people respond to these kinds of events and issues?

I hope the situation in states like Florida and Texas will serve as a wake-up call. I hope people will come out and defend access to books, school libraries, and academic freedoms of all sorts. I hope people will start attending school board meetings and speak out against these threats. American citizens need to rise to the occasion and get involved.

Colleges and universities around the country have been reducing the number of history classes they offer and shrinking the faculty of history departments. What are the implications of this for educating the next generation of American citizens?

If this trend continues, we will have a less educated populace. Studying history is necessary to understand our country’s past and its present—it enables people to be good citizens in our republic. Moreover, I worry about the capacity of people to fool citizens who are not educated and who, therefore, do not know about political tactics that have in the past led to devastating outcomes for our country. The justification for reducing history departments is often that institutions want to focus on areas that people believe lead to jobs, like business and STEM. But I think the bigger impetus is the politically motivated desire to have a citizenry that’s less savvy and less educated and therefore also less likely to resist authoritarianism. Also, when students major in history, they learn critical thinking and writing skills. Those are in demand in the job market.

What’s the value of having academics write popular history?

I always wanted to write for a larger audience. It has the advantage of taking the best ideas from academia, your colleagues, and your research and dispersing them widely. There’s room for both scholarly discussion and popular history. But if ideas are important, they should go out to the world. That’s where they can change people’s attitudes. Society is positively affected when people have a better understanding of history.

What can history departments do to encourage academic historians to write for a wider audience?

They can tenure and promote people who do that. Faculty are not going to believe it if departments just say this is important. They need to see examples of colleagues who have not been penalized because they’ve focused on writing popular essays, op-eds, or participated in public history projects like museum exhibits.

Whose shoulders are you standing on?

W. E. B. Du Bois is a big influence. He did everything—writing, teaching, history, sociology, activism, and organizing. In terms of the subject matter of my work, historian Fawn M. Brodie is important. She wrote Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History, the first biography of Thomas Jefferson that treated the Hemingses, the family enslaved by Jefferson, as real. That got me interested in the subject of Jefferson and slavery. At the back of her book, she reproduced the recollections of Madison Hemings and a man called Israel Jefferson—his real last name was Gillette. Those were the first slave narratives I read. Hearing the words of people who had been enslaved had an enormous effect on me.

Your work on the Hemings family has generated controversy and some heated responses. Why is revising established narratives of certain prominent figures in American history emotionally triggering?

People come to know and love these figures, and that becomes part of their identities. Similarly, if someone told me something I considered wacko about W. E. B. Du Bois or James Baldwin, I would also react negatively. It’s human nature. We feel connected to certain historical figures. I never met Du Bois, but I have an intellectual connection to him, and I admire and appreciate much of what he did. Such attachments can be strengthening to individuals. They help you figure out how to live your life. Many people have an understandable stake in Jefferson, George Washington, and others. I’ve made jokes about that in the past, but I get it.

What’s your response to critics who say you pay too little attention to Jefferson’s positive contributions?

I think that’s wrong. I pay a lot of attention to his positive contributions. They’re just not reading all my work.

What do you think future historians will write about this time in our country’s history?

I think about this all the time. It depends on how the present moment plays out. If we have a dictatorship fifty years from now, people will look back to today and say, “This time period was a turning point, the beginning of our glorious future.” If we don’t have one, people will say, “We dodged a bullet—that was a moment when we could have slid into authoritarianism and away from our commitment to democracy.” Basically, the jury is still out. There are many people in this country and around the world who are comfortable with the idea of authoritarianism and the cult of personality.

Around the world and here in the United States, we are living in turbulent times. How can the humanities, especially history, help students navigate times of uncertainty?

These are not the first turbulent times in world history, and while every time period is different, studying the past is instructive. It helps us see patterns that we can potentially learn from. For instance, when we look at Germany in the 1920s and 1930s, we can see what happened and then ask ourselves, “Do we want to go down that road?” Examining history doesn’t tell you exactly what to do now, but it can serve as a warning of what not to do.

We’ve spoken a lot about the past, how do you feel about the future?

Although I’m pessimistic about some things, I’m generally hopeful. I’m energized by the desire of my students and my children to get involved with society in positive ways. Because of young people, I am optimistic about where we are going.

Photograph: Historian Annette Gordon-Reed (Property of the Aspen Institute, Riccardo Savi)


  • Marilyn Cooper

    Marilyn Cooper

    Marilyn Cooper is associate editor of Liberal Education.