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Erika Lee and Carol Anderson on Myths and Realities of Race in American History

MS. STEAD SELLERS: Hello, and welcome to Washington Post Live. I’m Frances Stead Sellers, a senior writer here at The Washington Post.

Today we're going to take another step toward explaining America with two of the country's most prominent historians, Professor Carol Anderson and Professor Erika Lee, who are also contributors to a new book called "Myth America: Historians Take on the Biggest Legends and Lies About Our Past."

Professor Anderson, Professor Lee, a very warm welcome to Washington Post Live.

DR. ANDERSON: Thank you so much for having us.

DR. LEE: Thank you.

MS. STEAD SELLERS: We're delighted to have you.

And, Professor Anderson, maybe I can start with you, and you can give me a little bit of a backdrop to this book, what it’s about, how you got involved, and really why it resonates so much, why a book written by a group of historians, albeit distinguished historians, is sitting on the best-seller list.

DR. ANDERSON: And I think it's because we're seeing the incredible effort to scrub away the teaching of real American history, to scrub away the kinds of struggles, the aspirations that people have had, and to make it this kind of flattened history, the myth history that has the U.S. coming out as wholly, fully formed, and perfect. And so, therefore, the aspirations of people who are coming to this nation as immigrants, the aspirations of people who have been enslaved and who have fought for their freedom, those aspirations are just wiped away, and that's not America.

So this is a quest to talk about real American history by debunking the kinds of myths that are just coming up, say, out of Florida.

MS. STEAD SELLERS: So Professor Lee, take this a step further. Those are such powerful statements. Isn't there always some myth making in history? What's the difference between a myth and a new interpretation of historical facts?

DR. LEE: Yeah. That's a really good question. One of the ways in which this book really tries to engage in the public conversation is to address so much of the misinformation and disinformation that has been spreading across our media in the country in the past few years, and historians are always seeking to better understand, to deepen our understanding of the past, which often includes revision.

There are many, many--both Carol and I have many books on our shelves that offer interpretations that many of us would and have worked to debunk.

So historical revision is part of our practice. It's part of the teaching and learning of history. We do this all the time in our classrooms as well. It is based on research. It's based on analysis, critical analysis, and really thinking about the broad range of possibilities and perspectives to then come to a reasoned conclusion.

Myths have been built into any nation’s history. The United States is not an exception on that, and I think one of the differences between simple historical revision, although it’s never simplistic, and then a myth is to think about the ways in which these messages have been used to further particular political positions; to engage in wars over power; to justify the taking of indigenous land; the de-naturalization of certain groups; the treatment, the systemic racist treatment of certain groups as well. So I think it’s a distinction that needs to be made, both in terms of how we understand and practice history but also how are those ideas used in the real world as well.

Read entire article at Washington Post