Editorial: Should a politician dictate what is and isn’t our history?

The discussion of American history, and in particular African American history, is the latest front line in the so-called culture wars underway in our country. This is a tragedy. As this space has said many times in the past, history — while always subject to interpretation — is not malleable. It isn’t just what you’d like it to be or what a politician’s base wants to hear.

History is a narrative of known facts. Like the word says, history is also a “story.” Historians attempt to reconstruct the truth of the past from a variety of sources — sources that have always been there for those who want to dig deeper. Willfully rejecting parts of our history rises to the level of malicious intent. Such behavior will destroy a democracy based on truth.

We can say that aspects of eastern Long Island history — the fate of the Indigenous people after Europeans arrived in the early and mid-17th century, the presence of people here enslaved by prominent families, slave traders working out of East End harbors — were ignored for generations by a string of town “historians” who thought the better story to tell was the heroic struggle of Europeans to build new lives on this rich land.

In the last couple of years, three people — Riverhead historian Richard Wines, researcher Sandi Brewster Walker, and Southold Town historian Amy Folk — have undertaken their North Fork Project to uncover the facts of slavery as it existed on the North Fork. They are mostly treading on unbroken ground. This is an enormously important effort. There is a bigger story to tell; they want to tell it.

David Rattray, the publisher of the East Hampton Star, started a similar research project. It’s called the Plain Sight Project. The research done by Mr. Rattray and the North Fork Project will reshape our understanding of the history of the East End.

These attempts to reveal the truth of our past bring us to February 2023 and Black History Month in America.

The roots of this celebration go back to the 1920s, when a historian named Carter G. Woodson designated “Negro History Week” for the second week of February each year. This Black historian chose that week because it coincided with the birthday of Frederick Douglass, the most important Black leader of the 19th century. President Gerald Ford officially recognized Black History Month in 1976, saying words that might not go over very well today among a certain segment of the country, encouraging Americans to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.” 

By some, those words would be condemned as “woke.”

In January, the Florida Department of Education informed the College Board that it would reject the Board’s Advanced Placement African American studies curriculum, labeling it “woke indoctrination masquerading as education.”

The College Board then released another version of the program, eliminating certain aspects and writers such as Ta-Nehisi Coates. While it is probably not the first time educators bowed to politicians, it is certainly one of the most egregious. 

Today in America, grandstanding politicians can dictate what is and what isn’t acceptable history. This is quite the moment.