Themes in American History: Capitalism, Slavery, Democracy

End of Semester Thoughts on the Idea of Progress in History

Dear HIS 1000 students,

Thank you all for what has been an interesting and challenging semester. I realize this semester has been a particularly challenging one, not only in terms of the individual challenges many of you have been experiencing in terms of the ongoing impact of COVID-19 on your lives and those of your families, but in terms of your adjustment to college life and the expectations of a college course, which many of you are balancing with work and family obligations.

On top of that, the shift from remote to in-person was quite disruptive (although I believe, ultimately beneficial) and the fact that we were all masked during the semester made it harder for me to lecture and had the unfortunate side effect of making it harder for me to get to know you! That said, I want to thank you for your cooperation in sticking to the vaccine and mask mandates, which made our class meetings much safer.

I wanted to leave you with a few words that I hope you will take with you, and remember when confronting your own personal struggles as well as the ongoing struggle against injustice. As I’ve mentioned a few times, I’ve been struck over the semester by what I perceive as the pessimism, even cynicism, you’ve expressed at times in class and in some of your writing. To be clear, I think that these are perfectly reasonable responses to reading and learning about some of the aspects of our history we’ve discussed this semester, such as slavery, racial violence and terror, male domination and gendered oppression, religious intolerance, economic and environmental catastrophe, and war—aspects which, for some of you, may have been quite new, and quite disturbing to read about.

But I want to stress that, while some of these phenomena have taken on uniquely American forms, and while they perhaps appear more starkly hypocritical in the light of our country’s historically unique claim to be founded on promises of equality and democracy, none of them are particularly unique to the United States. Rather, the sad reality is that slavery, racism, intolerance, oppression, greed, and war have appeared in different forms in different societies around the world, throughout the course of human history.

When discussing the concept of progress in human history, I often quote Martin Luther King, Jr. to the effect that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” In other words, progress does occur over long periods of time, but our limited perspectives make it difficult to see, much like the earth’s horizon appears flat unless viewed from a great height, at which point its curvature becomes clear. King himself may be have been inspired by Theodore Parker, a nineteenth-century minister and abolitionist who expressed a similar idea in a sermon published in 1853.[1]

But as I mentioned before the Final yesterday, I thought a quote from another abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, might be more appropriate for this semester. In a speech given on August 3, 1857, commemorating the anniversary of slave emancipation in the West Indies, Douglass said:

“The whole history of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims have been borne of earnest struggle… If there is no struggle there is no progress.” Douglass knew of what he spoke, and I hope you will bear his quote in mind as you go forward in life and confront your own personal struggles, as well as the never-ending struggle against various forms of oppression and injustice.

One more quote, since I couldn’t resist adding this from bell hooks, a trailblazing Black feminist and scholar who passed away yesterday (she famously did not capitalize her name, so that rendering is not a mistake):

“When we only name the problem, when we state complaint without a constructive focus or resolution, we take hope away. In this way critique can become merely an expression of profound cynicism, which then works to sustain dominator culture.”[2]

I can’t think of a better quote that more succinctly states the dangers of succumbing to cynicism, even when faith in progress is difficult to sustain in the light of historical evidence to the contrary.

Frederick Douglass, ca. 1850s

[1] Theodore Parker, Ten Sermons by Theodore Parker, Of Justice and the Conscience (Boston: Crosby, Nichols, and Co., 1853), 84–85. King’s quote is from a speech made at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. on March 31, 1968, just a few days before his death.

[2] bell hooks, Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope (New York: Routledge, 2003), xiv.

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