In the bright surge of liberal commentary that accompanied Barack Obama’s electoral triumph, a sense of historical redemption was palpable. As Obama told the huge crowd that gathered on election night in Chicago, "The dream of our founders is alive in our time." If anything, Obama seemed happier to connect his candidacy with George Washington than to present himself as the heir of Rosa Parks or Martin Luther King Jr. From his celebrated speech on race in Philadelphia to his inaugural address, Obama embedded black history in the broader American story. The founders had produced a Constitution filled with noble promises; it was "signed but ultimately unfinished" and relied on the efforts of generations of Americans—white and black, men and women—to extend the franchise, extinguish slavery and conquer prejudice.
Obama’s deft deployment of these arguments played an important role in his victory. During the spring of 2008, when critics were looking to corner him as a racial firebrand, Obama used what we might call the integrationist version of American history to sidestep the controversy. But he was hardly straying from academic orthodoxy. Like Obama, liberal historians have long viewed the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution as watershed documents that established freedom and equality as the guiding lights of American history. These high ideals, the argument goes, first hastened the demise of slavery in the Northern states, then created such unbearable pressure in the "house divided against itself" (in Lincoln’s memorable phrase) that a terrible Civil War became unavoidable. During the 1860s a second American Revolution secured political and legal equality for the 4 million people who had been enslaved. But then the racism of Southern whites (and the apathy of the North) curtailed the march of freedom. Still, the pressure of American ideals inspired the civil rights movement of the mid-twentieth century. With Obama’s victory the final barrier to black achievement fell, and the integration of black people into the mainstream was complete.
The appeal of the integrationist story is obvious. It presents the founders as visionaries whose legacy eclipsed their mistakes and the prejudices of their day. We may lament their failure to rivet abolitionism to the Constitution, but their love of equality ensured that America’s institutions had a kind of egalitarian inevitability about them. (As Obama put it in his Philadelphia speech, "The answer to the slavery question was already embedded within our Constitution.") The integrationist story also sets American history on an upward track: it suggests that the nation started out with great ideals, then strived to expand their reach and meaning. It is a story of reconciliation, not opposition or confrontation. For more than two centuries, Americans have looked to "narrow that gap between the promise of our ideals and the reality of their time"—Obama again.
But is this the only way of looking at black history? Or the best way? During the 2008 campaign, Obama famously denounced his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, when the press began replaying snippets of sermons in which Wright offered an unsparing interpretation of American history. The media found it hard to get past the bracing refrain of "God damn America!" in a sermon Wright delivered just after the invasion of Iraq in 2003. But Wright’s confrontational oratory was hardly grounded in racial or political nihilism; he drew upon a rich black tradition of holding the United States to account. For Wright, the integrationist version of American history had whitewashed the past. In fact, the American story had been punctuated by injustice and blindness toward nonwhite peoples, from the seventeenth-century Atlantic Seaboard to the twenty-first-century Middle East. The problem, Wright held, was not some innate evil on the part of Americans but the tendency of Americans throughout history to confuse the actions of their government with the will of God: "We believe God ordained African slavery. We believe God approved segregation…. We believe God was a founding member of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund." Black history was important precisely because it provided a vantage point on this flattering but delusional sense of America as a redeemer nation, a city upon a hill.