On one level, what Stevens and others did was exactly what James Baldwin called on us to do a century later. “Not everything is lost,” Baldwin wrote after the collapse of the civil-rights movement. “Responsibility cannot be lost, it can only be abdicated. If one refuses abdication, one begins again.” Stevens and his colleagues went back to where we started. They understood that the three-fifths clause and the fugitive-slave clause had tilted the balance of power to the slaveholding states; that the Constitution did not live up to the Declaration of Independence’s promise of equality; that the actions of the states and the courts consolidated a view of Black people that mandated their inferior place in American society. With the Civil War amendments, they aimed to begin again. But the country turned its back. The Black-freedom struggle in the mid-20th century, what scholars call the Second Reconstruction, sought, among other things, to complete what was left of this “unfinished revolution,” as the historian Eric Foner describes it.
Now we find ourselves facing a moral reckoning of the same magnitude. By now, we should have learned the lesson that changing laws or putting our faith in politicians to do the right thing is not enough. We have to rid ourselves, once and for all, of this belief that white people matter more than others, or we’re doomed to repeat the cycles of our ugly history over and over again. George Santayana, the Spanish-born American philosopher, was right to point out that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” But what he didn’t say is that those who willfully refuse to remember become moral monsters.
We have to confront our national trauma honestly if we are to shake loose from the political frame of Reaganism and Trumpism, with its racial dog whistles and foghorns, its greed and selfishness, and its idealized version of America as “the shining city on the hill,” where the country’s sins are transformed into examples of its inherent goodness. This will demand of us a new American story, different symbols, and robust policies to repair what we have done. I don’t yet know what this will look like in its details—and my understanding of our history suggests that we will probably fail trying—but I do know that each element is important to any effort toward beginning again. As Samuel Beckett wrote in his 1983 novella, “Worstward Ho,” “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
A new story doesn’t mean that we discard all the elements of the old story, nor does it mean that we dwell only on our sins. Instead, we narrate our national beginnings in light of our contradictions and our aspirations. Innocence is left aside. Who we aspire to be, without the safety of the lie, should always organize the stories we tell ourselves about who we are. I say this because our stories carry moral weight. Who and what we choose to exclude exposes the limits of our ideas of justice. Our stories can make some people the center of the plot and make others latecomers and objects of charity and goodwill or of scorn and derision. America’s should be a story that begins with those who sought to make real the promise of this democracy. Put aside the fairy tale of America as “the shining city on the hill” or “the redeemer nation,” and cast the idea of perfecting the union not as a guarantee of our goodness, but as a declaration of the ongoing work to address injustice in our midst.