We discussed today how the term “triggering” itself can be triggering. Now, it appears that the racism task force for the National Archives has found the Archives themselves are triggering. The task force, created by National Archivist David Ferriero after the protests over the killing of George Floyd, released its report finding that the iconic Rotunda (containing the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and the Bill of Rights) is a symbol of “structural racism” and should be countered with such reforms as staging dancing performances. It also found the emphasis and celebration of the Founders and Framers to be harmful.
For full disclosure, I have spoken repeatedly at the Archives and have long expressed the commonly held view of the Rotunda as one of the most beautiful and powerful spaces in the world.
That is not exactly the take of the Racism Task Force headed by Erica Pearson, Director, Office of Equal Employment Opportunity and Ovnelle Millwood, Director of Workforce Strategy and Analysis. The task force found the Rotunda to be one of three examples of structural racism: “a Rotunda in our flagship building that lauds wealthy White men in the nation’s founding while marginalizing BIPOC, women, and other communities.” The task force called for “reimagining” the space to be more inclusive.
The report also objects to the laudatory attention given white Framers and Founders, particularly figures like Thomas Jefferson. They encourage the placement of “trigger warnings” to “forewarn audiences of content that may cause intense physiological and psychological symptoms.”
The task force’s report also calls for changing OurDocuments.gov — the website on American “milestone documents” such as the Constitution and Declaration of Independence. — to be less celebratory of historically impactful Americans, such as former President Thomas Jefferson.
“To address over-description in the short term, NARA should fully reassess the content of OurDocuments.gov, Docsteach.org, and other NARA online content and rewrite or discard material where necessary. OurDocuments.gov features transcripts and historical context of “100 milestone documents of American history” but often uses adulatory and excessive language to document the historical contributions of White, wealthy men. For example, a search of Thomas Jefferson in OurDocuments.gov brings up 24 results. He is described in this sample lesson plan as a ‘visionary’ who took ‘vigorous action’ to strengthen the “will of the nation to expand westward.” The plan does not mention that [Jefferson’s] policy of westward expansion forced Native Americans off their ancestral land, encouraged ongoing colonial violence, and laid the groundwork for further atrocities like the Trail of Tears. By comparison, searching Harriet Tubman returns one result. The only sentence in which she appears notably lacks the reverence found in the document about Jefferson. It describes the role of Black women in the Civil War, ‘the most famous being Harriet Tubman, who scouted for the 2nd South Carolina Volunteers.’”
Language must also be corrected:
“By racist language, the ADS means not only explicitly harmful terms, such as racial slurs, but also information that implies and reinforces damaging stereotypes of BIPOC individuals and communities while valorizing and protecting White people. Descriptive terminology cannot be divorced from its context. The ADS also recognizes that racist language is only one type of harmful language and that oppressive systems do not exist in a vacuum. The subgroup therefore calls on NARA to address sexist, homophobic, ableist, etc., language in archival descriptions and related policies and practices. NARA will only succeed in dismantling oppressive systems if we acknowledge their complex, overlapping nature and the cumulative harm they cause to marginalized communities.”
Even the famous murals are now considered triggering:
Murals The National Archives should consider options to address the problems presented by the Faulkner murals. While these massive paintings are historically significant and loved by many, others find them oppressive and exclusionary. “The murals,” said one respondent to the Museum Subgroup’s survey, are “an homage to White America.” One possibility is to commission additional murals for the walls in the Rotunda Gallery. Another is to stage dance or performance art in the space that invites dialogue about the ways that the United States has mythologized the founding era.
I am particularly concerned about “reimagining” the Rotunda. “Reimagining” has become the over-used term for any wholesale reform from “reimagining policing” through defunding to “reimagining the Supreme Court” through packing. It is hard to oppose “reimagining” anything without sounding defensive or, perish the thought, unimaginative.
Yes, the Founders and Framers were overwhelmingly white. We also do celebrate their brilliance in the creation of these foundational documents for freedom. That does not mean that we do not recognize countervailing elements in their histories, particularly when it comes to slavery. It also does not mean that the document lived up to its ideals given the enslavement of millions. However, those documents allowed us to address the scourge of slavery and to address so many of our failings. The Rotunda is a celebration of these foundational documents not some zero sum contest for what groups will now be represented in this relatively small space. This is not an “homage to White America” but an homage to the founding documents of one of the oldest and most successful democracies in the history of the world.
The concern is that there will be little real debate over some of these proposals. No one wants to be viewed as racially unimaginative or, worse, racially insensitive. The task force itself does not include countervailing views on these issues. It takes a great deal of courage to raise a dissenting voice on such issues. We have seen academics subject to campaigns for termination after questioning reforms. The lack of attention to the report when it was released in April is itself concerning. These reports can go unchallenged and move into implementation without serious debate or discussion.
It is unlikely that many will object at the risk of their own careers. We have been discussing efforts to fire professors who voice dissenting views on various issues including an effort to oust a leading economist from the University of Chicago as well as a leading linguistics professor at Harvard and a literature professor at Penn. The cancel culture has also extended to museums, book publishers, and other forums for intellectual exchanges. Now the esteemed Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) fired podcast host and deputy editor Dr. Edward Livingston, who raised his own concerns and doubts in a podcast over claims of structural racism. That fallout at JAMA has continued with the recent departure of the editor of the fame publication.
I agree with the task force that it is important to contextualize our historic figures and to augment our historical presentations to be more inclusive of figures like Tubman. However, the Rotunda is designed as a reverent space for our founding documents. It does not require reimagination to understand the power and significance of those documents.
I can also understand the preference for more diverse murals to reflect the diversity of our nation and its roots in many cultures, including our Native American culture. However, the murals by artist Barry Faulkner depict the writing and adoption of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States. The signers of these documents were clearly non-diverse but the murals capture the historical creation of the documents on display. They are almost 100 years old and have become an indelible part of the Rotunda. The Rotunda has a defined and confined purpose of focusing on the documents that laid the foundation for this representative democracy. It should not become the latest battleground for our contemporary divisions and controversies.