Like Gaul, “Records of Rights” is divided into three parts. Each part concerns an oppressed group. The first, “Bending Towards Justice,” depicts the oppression of African Americans. The next part, “Remembering the Ladies,” depicts the oppression of women. The third, “Yearning to Breathe Free,” depicts the oppression of immigrants—though by this time, as Edward Rothstein noted in a scathing review in the New York Times, you’ll be at a loss to come up with a reason why any immigrant would want to come here. Under the section “Equal Rights,” we find “stories about Jim Crow laws, violence against Asian immigrants, and discriminatory voting laws.” Under “Rights to Freedom and Justice,” we find “stories about slavery and other forms of servitude, the Ku Klux Klan and mob violence, and Japanese internment.” American history is truly a glorious pageant.
The exhibits readily acknowledge that the Founders and other powerful white men talked a good game. But the curators are here to make us wake up and smell the coffee, with the goal of “perfecting democracy,” as the press release said. The juxtaposition of artifacts makes the point clear. The curators take care that any glimmer of American idealism—say, the deed to the Statue of Liberty, included in the immigrant exhibit—is quickly snuffed out with a companion artifact: in this case, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. The original 19th Amendment is shown, recognizing women’s right to vote. A grand achievement, yes? Look right next to it: the Equal Rights Amendment, “introduced in Congress as a way to end discrimination against women.” America rejected it. Pfffft.
Events of little or no historical significance, however interesting in themselves, are elevated into landmarks simply because they echo the curators’ parochialism: the Zoot Suit riots, the Double V campaign by the Pittsburgh Courier newspaper, Muhammad Ali’s “fight for justice.” I am one of many millions of lucky Americans who had forgotten all about the National Women’s Conference in Houston in 1977—until I ran into a large section devoted to “The Spirit of Houston,” complete with video and still pictures: “Attendees at the 1977 National Women’s Conference in Houston are shown here supporting privacy of one’s body.” At the same time, major strands of American history are ignored altogether, though they are surely essential to the work of the Archives. Evidently the major contribution the military made to American life was to get desegregated after World War II. That was the war when all those Japanese Americans got interned.