Tuesday, September 7, 2021

Who Is The Protagonist

Friend of the Institutue and religious historian Adam Laats has what I think is the very best take on the "CRT" panic. I've seen him say this a couple of times--here's a quote from a Guardian article:

“The heart and soul of the anti-CRT outburst is this anxiety of the changing protagonists in the story of American history,” said Laats.

That, for me, absolutely hits the nail on the head. It's not just an argument about what the story of America is, or even controversial topics or trying to make white kids feel guilty. On a really gut level, this freak-out is about people who don't want to hear the story as if it were somebody else's story and they were just a bit player.

You can understand the 1619 project that way--as an answer to the question, "What if we told this story not as the story of the United States government or the story of white settlers coming to a new world, but as the story of Black folks." If you've never really grabbed the notion of "centering" someone in a "narrative," these terms work fine as well--telling the story as if X is the main character.

We've seen that narrative exercise. There are a couple of great versions of the Three Little Pigs with the wolf as the protagonist. Gregory Maguire has made an entire career (and inspired a hit musical) out of making different characters the protagonists of stories you already know.

It's more challenging when you make it personal. Every one of us is the bad guy in someone else's story,. and some people never make peace with that in their entire lives. But the history of this country has always had as its protagonists a bunch of white folks. They have gotten better over the years at sharing that stage--but it has mostly always still been their stage. 

As a lifelong English teacher and lit guy, this is a framing that really clicks for me. This is a short post, but I want to put this idea down where I can find it. I expect I'll be using "protagonist" again.

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