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The 2016 Project

I teach American literature in the public university system of Missouri, the state whose admission to the union as a slave state caused a national crisis, the state where Dred Scott was judged to have “no rights the white man is bound to respect,” the state where Michael Brown’s murder turned Black Lives Matter from a hashtag into a movement. My state boasts that it is the birthplace of Rush Limbaugh, who did for talk radio what Rupert Murdoch did for cable news, as well as the place that spawned Josh Hawley, who has done for American democracy what Rupert Murdoch has done for American democracy. Most recently, in this spring’s legislative session, Missouri Republicans have written a bill and proposed an amendment to a different, unrelated bill that would have outlawed in public and charter schools the use of materials derived from the New York Times’s 1619 Project or any of the ideas expressed in them. This was happening as I was in the final weeks of teaching a new course on Missouri Writers, a course I designed for a new minor in Missouri Studies. It’s a course that has given me the opportunity to reach farther back into literary history than I usually do, all the way back to the 1854 appearance of the first published novel by a Black writer, William Wells Brown’s Clotel, and to go deeper into the history of my adopted state than I’d previously gone. It’s been a privilege to teach this history alongside the literature that comes out of it; it would be nice not to have it repeat itself quite so much.

Of course it’s not just literature teachers in Missouri who have to deal with the spelling out in law of what much of the culture has been saying under its breath, mostly, for decades. Missouri’s attorney general has joined those from nineteen other states in writing a letter to the US Department of Education protesting its promotion of the 1619 Project and Critical Race Theory through grant funding, an act I see as part of a larger effort I’ve taken to calling the 2016 Project. It reads, in part:

Though the Department does not overtly refer to CRT (Critical Race Theory) in its priorities, it is prioritizing teaching this highly controversial ideology through the vehicle of this grant program. This is hardly what Congress intended when it authorized this program. CRT focuses how our current government mechanisms are irretrievably flawed. Its theorists posit that our Nation’s values, ideals, foundations and institutions—the things Congress intended to promote—instead produce “inequity” demanding actions to modify this result.

This determination to put scare quotes around inequity, to protect our young future voters from the truth of their past and their present, is of course not just a Missouri thing. But here in the border state whose history, as Philippe Bourgois has recently been quoted by Frances Dickey on this site, “almost caricatures race relations in the United States,” it feels, as the young people say, extra. If, historically, Missouri and especially St. Louis have been where racism and empire joined forces in perfecting and providing a springboard west for racial capitalism, and if, as my students had to hear maybe too many times this past semester, Missouri serves as what I’ve taken to calling a bildungsregion for the nation, it stands to reason that it is a place most in need of historical education.

A State Is the Product of Its People

And of course it is also a place that has resisted such education. While a member of the commission in charge of the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, Walter Williams, the founder of the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, wrote: “A State is the product of its people. In field and mine and forest are found the tools. The character of the population who use these tools decides. In this is Missouri finely fortunate.”[1]

Telling the story of the early European visitors, the Spanish and French, and then the coming of those from the upper South, the Virginians and Kentuckians and later “the Scotch-Irish descendants, those men and women from north and east and beyond the sea, all seeking homes, where there was blue sky and elbow-room and freedom,” Williams writes that the Spanish and French didn’t do all that much and are barely remembered (1­–2). In contrast: “The colonists from east of the Appalachians seeking homes were the real founders of the state. They builded homes. They constituted a brave, intelligent, patriotic citizenship. They founded a state in the wilderness and equipped it with all the machinery of government a year before the congress of the United States could make up its mind to admit the sturdy youngster to sit full-privileged at the republic’s council table. They were of genuine pioneer stock. Some peoples will not bear transplanting; even in the wilderness others are the architects of States” (2).

There is so much to say about this pocket history of Missouri that one hardly knows where to begin. How do you begin to understand the history of your state when its leading citizens have been so determined to forget it? When that history is a continuous story of forced transplantation and the unbelievable hardiness of the people who could endure it? When there were people who could hardly be “brave, intelligent, patriotic citizens” if the courts said they weren’t citizens at all? When the legacy of the upper South is so entrenched that the distinction thought worth making is that between people from Virginia, Kentucky, etc. and the earlier Spanish and French settlers—rather than between the hardy Southerners and the Otoe and Missouria and Osage they displaced or the Black people they enslaved?

Given this blindness, how do you not try to teach the connections between Jamestown and Jefferson City, the capital of the state made to wait before joining the grown-up table because it wanted to keep slaves—when the Show Me State caricatures the nation’s history, when it lays out in high relief the systems and structures that some are spending so much denying? In last year’s The Broken Heart of America: St. Louis and the Violent History of the United States, Walter Johnson asks his own question: “Why was the police department revenue-farming poor Black motorists when there was a Fortune 500 company, doing $25 billion of business a year, headquartered just a quarter-mile to the south of the spot where Officer Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown?”[2] The answer, of course, lies in St. Louis’s ongoing history of redlining, urban renewal, and other manifestations of racial capitalism. You can’t put inequity in scare quotes if you understand this history, if you know that systemic and structural racism are about not what’s in one officer’s heart but what’s in the beating, broken heart of the country.

While Missouri may be a caricature, the twisted face on the caricaturist’s pad is only an exaggeration of the features of the nation. So while I try to teach Missouri’s history and literature to students in a climate where a vocal and hostile minority would rather I didn’t, all of us who teach American literature face similar struggles. In past weeks, state legislatures across the country have tried (in bills with markedly similar wording) to outlaw the teaching of America’s racial history to its schoolchildren, and some have succeeded. This week, Nikole Hannah-Jones lost the tenure originally offered with her appointment as a chair of journalism at UNC because of her stewardship of the 1619 Project. Next semester it could be any of us facing angry trustees because of our teaching of Charles Chesnutt or Melvin B. Tolson or Maya Angelou. Next time I teach my Missouri Writers class, it could be me getting a call at home from my chancellor asking why I’m teaching Missouri’s best and brightest such dark truths about their state’s past: that the bicentennial they’re celebrating this year cannot be even superficially grasped without some understanding of the connections between its constitution’s exclusion clause and its university’s choice to spend $20,000 on an acrylic case to protect Thomas Jefferson’s gravestone. My answer—that I don’t know how to teach Twain’s angry late work, Sterling Brown’s poetry, or Dick Gregory’s standup comedy without teaching that history, that our campus is in the middle of the region of Missouri known as Little Dixie, for god’s sake—would probably not do. Another equally unlikely to be well-received but/and/because equally true answer would be that if they can’t be taught about it in high school, and it looks like many of them haven’t been, then—as an employee at a land grant university built on the profits from stolen land and with the labor of enslaved people, established to serve the people of the state—I owe it to them to teach it to them now.

Thomas Jefferson’s original tombstone, donated to the University of Missouri in 1883
Fig. 1. Thomas Jefferson’s original tombstone, donated to the University of Missouri in 1883, encased in acrylic by the University of Missouri in 2020. Photo by Grace Noteboom, Columbia Missourian.

In These Times

The last time I was lucky enough to appear in a Modernist Studies venue, it was in person, introducing a reading by Jonathan Lethem at the 2016 MSA conference. It was November 18, ten days after the election. I talked about what I valued in Lethem’s recent work, which was the tension between the realist and the fantastic, the way that the combination enables novels like Chronic City and A Gambler’s Anatomy to show us the world as it is and also as it’s not, but could be, might be. The only allusion I could muster to what had just happened—the knowledge of which hung over us in that ballroom in sunny Pasadena, dark, storm-sodden history from which we were hoping to awake—was that at the time, the possibility of the world being other than it was, of it being susceptible to resistance and change, seemed relevant.

Now, I am appearing in “In These Times,” and times are different, and not. In 2016, we couldn’t have seen what was ahead for us, as bad as we thought things might be. Some of what was ahead of us then is now behind us, and it was both worse and better than we might have thought. But all of it came out of a history that made those four years possible and that informs its own denial by those who would like to extend the 2016 Project as far as they can make it go. Placed next to four hundred years of history, the period from 2016­–2020 might seem small, but as William Wells Brown puts it in Clotel, it’s part of the two-threaded course of American history, the one that started at Plymouth Rock and the one that started at Jamestown. As the past of slavery and supremacism is being denied by these attempts to dictate what teachers can teach, so the January 6th insurrection is being redescribed as tourism and the previous administration’s griftocracy is being redescribed as an effort to save the nation from socialism. Together with coordinated efforts in the state to restrict voting rights and the right to bodily autonomy, these actions form the heart of the 2016 project. They depend on our willingness to forget one half of our past and sugarcoat the other, to eschew realism and pretend the fantastic is real and to do so not in order to imagine change but rather to convince ourselves that none is needed. As I look ahead to another year of teaching my state’s literary and cultural history in the context of these denials, I’ll have these two projects in mind—the 1619 Project and the 2016 Project—and I have the sobering but comforting feeling that I won’t be alone.


Notes

[1] Walter Williams, The State of Missouri: An Autobiography (Columbia, MO: Press of E. W. Stephens, 1904), 1.

[2] Walter Johnson, The Broken Heart of America: St. Louis and the Violent History of the United States (New York: Basic, 2020), 11.