In their 1998 study on how middle school students (grades 5-8) conceptualize history, Keith Barton and Linda Levstik noted that “[w]hile students in this study did not use the past to justify current inequalities, they did use the extension of rights and opportunities as a way of demonstrating that such inequalities are bound to be overcome (or that they already have been), and they consciously and reflectively considered such progress to be the dominant theme in American history.” Such is the theme of Sophia A. Nelson’s E Pluribus One: Reclaiming Our Founders’ Vision for a United America, a book so atrocious I could not bring myself to finish it. ($13.68 on Amazon)
Firstly, Nelson’s writing is horrendous and little more than a long string of patriotic buzzwords and catchphrases. The following passage from page 49 is typical of her writing:
“The success of any great county depends upon the character of its citizenry. There is a reason that America is the envy of the world. We are different. We live different. We worship different. And that is because our ‘different’ is predicated upon the belief that America is a virtuous and moral nation.”
The theme of American exceptionalism runs rampant throughout Nelson’s work and is backed up not with facts, figures, and historical analysis (which would refute the concept of exceptionalism in its entirety), but with tugs on patriotic heartstrings. She declares in a chapter on nonconformity:
“Our nation started as a nation of rebel rule breakers. They refused to have their rights trampled upon by one of the greatest empires on earth. They refused to conform to what felt unnatural and unholy to their very nature. We of this generation are their heirs.”
Nelson’s claims about American exceptionalism are so laughable that they don’t even warrant a refutation. In fact, one cannot offer a refutation because there are no claims to refute, only vapid exclamations about the general awesomeness that is America.
Secondly, Nelson fails to grasp even basic facts about American history. She claims on page 95 that “slavery ended in 1863, by presidential proclamation.” Of course, slavery did not end in 1863. The Emancipation Proclamation “freed” slaves living in Confederate-held territory, which was, of course, under the control of a rival government that did not recognize Mr. Lincoln’s authority. Delaware and Maryland, both of which were slave-states, never seceded from the union, so their resident slaves were unaffected by the proclamation. For those who, like Nelson, need a quick refresher on basic American history, slavery “ended” in 1865 with the passage of the 13th amendment.
Lastly, Nelson’s worst offense is her adherence to the narrative of American progress, understood as the gradual expansion of rights and liberties. Patriotic buzzwords and common mistakes about details of American history are laughable, but forgivable (many people believe that the Emancipation Proclamation ended slavery). What is truly offensive about the narrative of American progress is that it invalidates and erases the narratives and experiences of those left behind in the wake of said supposed progress. The narrative of American progress invalidates the historical narratives of oppressed peoples by asserting that certain elements of the past no longer matter. Yes, we had slavery, but we don’t anymore. It is this conceptualization of history that leads privileged white people to ask with exasperation, “why can’t black people get over slavery?” But the past does matter. Historical narrative is the foundation of individual and group identity, something Nelson fails to grasp.
In chapter 5 of E Pluribus One (entitled “Be Free in Enterprise and Commerce”), Nelson unwittingly demonstrates historical invalidation and erasure in her discussion of Madam C. J. Walker, who Nelson upholds as an example of the “self-made American business woman.” (pg. 118) Walker, born Sarah Breedlove, created a line of haircare products for black women and became extremely wealthy. Nelson writes that Walker embodies “the spirit of what is possible in a freethinking, free-enterprise system.” Of course, there is little discussion of the millions of people left behind by such a system, or that our “free-enterprise” system favors white men. Nelson only comments that “in the post-Civil War South, opportunity was slim, and commerce was shifting from slave labor to industry. Most blacks, post-Reconstruction, took to sharecropping and domestic services that they had learned in slavery. Times were hard for all Americans, but particularly hard for black Americans.” (pg. 115) She then launches into her discussion of Walker and the reader is left with the impression that all the injustices of post-Reconstruction America are fine because this one black woman got lucky. And herein lies the problem with E Pluribus One: by focusing on aberrations like Walker, who fit the contrived, dominant schema of American progress, exceptionalism, and “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” economics, Nelson renders irrelevant the experiences of American minorities.
“Times were…particularly hard for black Americans” is not meant to comment on the state of late-19th century black Americans, so much as it is simply a device to set the stage for Walker’s triumph over adversity. No matter that most people did not overcome adversity, or that today’s systemic racism is a direct product of post-Civil War attitudes and policies. For Nelson and anyone who views history in the same way she does, the past does not matter beyond the cherry-picked trivia that supports the idea that America is somehow different. For Nelson, people like Walker are examples of why America is so special. Walker is the rule, not the exception, even though the facts of history necessitate that one draw the exact opposite conclusion.
Another glaring example of this is Nelson’s discussion of Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Nelson rightly asserts that Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a controversial and important piece of anti-slavery literature. Stowe is upheld as an example of a citizen who “helped chart the course for a moral and virtuous citizenry.” (pg. 56) What Nelson ironically fails to mention in her discussion is that modern historians, the Black Power movement, and the Black Arts movement have all criticized the novel as helping to solidify stereotypes about black people: the happy darky, the tragic mulatto, the mammy, the pickaninny black child, and, of course, the Uncle Tom. Stowe’s heart may have been in the right place, but that doesn’t change the fact that her actions had negative as well as positive repercussions. By failing to mention the criticisms and viewpoints of the minority group actually affected by slavery and its legacy, Nelson’s view of history renders them, at best, objects in a drama where white people play the part of savior.
With this kind of thinking, what does it matter that slavery used to exist? Black people need to just get over slavery. Why do black people keep talking about systemic racism? We all know the Civil Rights Act ended racism, plus I know a black guy with a good job and a nice house.
Nelson’s call to “reclaim our founders’ vision for a united America” is predicated on the idea that we should simply ignore the uglier parts of our past. The unpleasant facts of our history are simply mentioned in passing. They are not presented as worthy of further consideration; they are simply pieces of trivia devoid of social, political, and historical context, which means that the people affected by those unpleasant facts are as irrelevant as the facts themselves. This is not a unifying message; it is a divisive and patronizing schema that can only serve to perpetuate injustice.