It is vital to add, however, that radicals in the mold of Ms. Hannah-Jones do not wish to black out all of history, only part of it—the larger, dominant part. They wish to summon up the other parts—the most violent, horrific and uncommon ones—to condemn the rest. They do not, for example, wish to depict the past in a way that suggests racism was an accepted and unremarked commonplace of life, as it appears in Twain’s novels and in historical accounts of black slaves fighting alongside whites in the Civil War. If the evil of racism was once commonplace (so their reasoning goes), it may be endemic to the human condition and thus not eradicable by revolutionary means. The banality of evil is really an aspect of the banality of human history—a fact utopians can never accept.
Radicals since the French Enlightenment know no greater enemy than what they call “superstition.” Yet this squeamishness in the face of historical fact suggests a superstition of their own. It is the illusion that to preserve history and historical consciousness is to resurrect the past in the present and so perpetuate it across an endless future.
Theirs is not so simple an error as to imagine that allowing the “n-word” to stand in modern editions of literary masterpieces—“Huckleberry Finn,” “Heart of Darkness,” “Black Mischief”—is to encourage racial prejudice today. Their mistake doesn’t arise from bad social psychology but from bad metaphysics. It is to attribute some magical quality to the past that would permit reactionary magicians to conjure it back and reestablish it in all its dark wickedness in our own time. To suppose such a thing is to ascribe to history a still more powerful authority even than right-wing reactionaries do.