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Aspen Ideas Festival: 'Correcting America's Historical Memory'

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Annette Gordon-Reed and David Blight talking about American history.
Annette Gordon-Reed and David Blight talking about American history at the Aspen Ideas Festival.
Riccardo Savi | Courtesy of The Aspen Institute

Pulitzer Prize-winning historians David Blight and Annette Gordon-Reed spoke in an Aspen Ideas Festival session titled, "Correcting America's Historical Memory." These historians say sometimes our myths and memories collide with historical reality.

Annette Gordon-Reed of Harvard University won the Pulitzer Prize for "The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family,” and David Blight of Yale won the Pulitzer Prize for "Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom."

What is the role of myth and the stories we tell ourselves? And why is it important to know where they diverge from historical reality? Are some myths helpful and some dangerous?

Blight said historians “don’t correct the past as much as we try to explain it, and give texture to it, and give measure to it, and remind people to keep a long view. But sometimes people don’t have time for long views. Memory gets owned. History gets interpreted.”

Gordon-Reed said Americans focus so much attention on the country’s founders and founding “because we’re new.” We don’t have thousands of years of history to explain. And, she said, “we love these stories to tell us who we are. “ But, she added, “the myth and memory collide with the history sometimes.”

“We like a good hero,” Blight said. “We like epic. Who doesn’t like an epic story, with a beginning and a middle and an end? And if the ending is particularly redemptive … Americans love redemption. We’re not alone in that, but we’ve got a big case of it. We like our stories to take us somewhere and to tell us how we solve something. We’re problem-solvers.”

Gordon-Reed said “history is a moral enterprise.” She explained, “everybody’s looking for the good person they would have been in the historical story, when in fact, the vast majority of people do what the vast majority of people do: We go along with whatever the world is at this particular moment. Extraordinary people should be recognized, but they should not be taken as the norm.” 

Blight added, “as historians, we make moral judgments all the time. We need humility in how we make those judgments. Humility is the best value I can think of for a good historian.” 

The research historians do is vitally important, Gordon-Reed said. Original sources then lead us to ask “can the stories be corroborated?” Then after you’ve written your history, you wonder “how people will receive what you’ve written,” Gordon-Reed said.

“Everyone has a narrative in their head. And our job [as historians] is to mess with it,” Blight said. 

Blight said one of the American myths is that of “progress, the idea that American history is going somewhere. Their idea that America was born perfect, then launched its career of improvement. Like any great myth, there is a lot of progress. There’s a lot of truth in that progress. We’ve been on the side of angels at times, and the side of the devil at times.”

Professors David Blight and Annette Gordon-Reed spoke with John Dickerson of CBS’ 60 Minutes on June 29, 2019 at the Aspen Ideas Festival in Aspen, Colo.