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History isn’t here to make you feel good

Whether Trump’s 1776 Commission or Black History Month as a parade of heroes, it’s dangerous to skew the past.

Chicago Mayor Jane Byrne (from left) mayor-elect Harold Washington and Cook County State’s Attorney Richard M. Daley at a “unity luncheon” in April 1983.
In April 1983, Chicago Mayor Jane Byrne (from left) mayor-elect Harold Washington and Cook County State’s Attorney Richard M. Daley gathered for a unity luncheon. It didn’t work.
Associated Press

The mistake people make about history is to treat it as a crutch to prop up their sagging egos. It starts in childhood, when kids meet a parade of airbrushed heroes. But you grow up, or should, and the pretty story learned in second grade must become a jumping-off point, the branch you fly from, toward the stars of what actually occurred.

To stay on that branch, preening your feathers, is to risk ending up an affirmation junkie, able only to process another hit of flattery.

And we know what that looks like.

In September, Donald Trump denounced as a “twisted web of lies” the simple reality that racism is baked into the crust of our American apple pie. He created the 1776 Commission to promote a happy gloss of American history to help his supporters feel better about themselves.

But before we sluice away the plagiarized slop that Trump’s commission squeegeed together, since this is Black History Month, it might be worthwhile to wonder if the inclination to sugar-coat the past is limited to unreflective white folks.

It is not.

Which is too bad. Because once you break free from the need for history to lick your hand like an affectionate pup, you are primed for a clearer understanding of what went on back then and, as a bonus, what is going on now and what might occur in the future.

For example. The election of Harold Washington, Chicago’s first Black mayor, is generally presented as a seismic breakthrough and triumph. The power structure that previously served up an unbroken chain of 41 white mayors bowed its head and deferred to the rising might of African American Chicagoans as manifested in the personhood of the joyful “Here’s Harold!” Washington.

Pretty to think so.

What actually happened, as older Chicagoans might remember, is that the incumbent mayor, Jane Byrne, having made a hash of her first and only term, was challenged by Richie Daley. They despised each other, and the weakened Democratic Party couldn’t impose discipline. So both ran in the February 1983 mayoral primary. Daley got 29.6% of the vote. Byrne, 33.6%. And Washington got 36.3% and won.

Because the two white candidates split the vote. Had either run, alone, they’d have crushed Washington, 2 to 1. As it was, Bernie Epton’s whipped-together Republican “Before it’s too late” run was a close call, Washington winning 52% to 48%.

Why is this important? First, because understanding why Washington won sets up what follows. The City Council, still existing in the deeply bigoted Chicago that had somehow elected a Black mayor, thwarted almost everything he attempted.

Second, grasping the truth of Washington’s election makes it easier to realize that declarations that America has transcended race — like Trump’s 1776 Commission — are invariably premature.

For instance: The heart-stirring ascendance of our nation’s first Black president, Barack Obama, a cool, sophisticated slice of supra-racial brilliance, led directly to the grotesque opera buffa, bigoted, sneering piece of human wreckage that is Donald Trump, spastically winking at white supremacists, his orange makeup streaking down his face, staining the collars of his $500 Brioni shirts.

How did that happen?

It happened because, as with Washington, too many people bought the “past-is-redeemed” narrative and took their eyes off the ball. I was having lunch with David Axelrod, Obama’s former chief strategist and senior adviser, and made a confession. “I find myself blaming Obama for Donald Trump,” I said. “Is that fair?” He paused and said — in essence, I didn’t write it down — that in Obama’s last two years in office, freed of the need to run again, he felt safe concentrating on issues that he particularly cared about. Issues such as reestablishing relations with Cuba, instead of focusing on the urgent need to groom an increasingly bitter, divided, crazy and hallucinating citizenry to accept what was, for them, the unimaginable humiliation of electing a woman president.

The past is a story we tell ourselves and each other. If it’s too soothing, a lullaby and not a march, then we are doing it wrong, and setting ourselves up for trouble. We don’t study the past because it’s a fun hobby, like collecting stamps. We study the past because, in doing so, we see the future. Accepting only the parts that make you feel good is like driving a car while gazing up at the beautiful blue sky and big puffy clouds. It only works until you hit the truck stopped in front of you.