There are two ways to create a secret.
The first way is to take information that no one knows and share it with a limited number of people. Each person is responsible for not sharing the information.
The second way is to forget what was once widely known. If you choose this way to create a secret, it helps if you can accelerate the forgetting by creating an alternate narrative.
The first kind of secret is what we typically think of when we think of a conspiracy. Unsolved assassinations, plots to steal sensitive information, and the like fall into this category. The second kind we typically don’t think about at all. After all, we forgot.
The reason why much of the history of this country is so implausible is because we mistake the second kind of secret for the first. We hear about mass roundup and abuse of Native children through the Indian School movement, or federal, state, and local authorities coordinating on efforts to economically disenfranchise black people, or even the true scope of the horrors permitted during slavery, and dismiss it. Too many people would have to be in on it. We process that kind of evil individually and conclude: “not possible.”
However, even a cursory review of primary sources exposes the truth. The first kind of secret is in the context of policy or governance is countercultural. It’s something that people would be offended to know about and that you’d get in trouble if found out. The second kind, however, is built on the fact that the ideas we say we find abhorrent today were not controversial in the time they were created.
Research reveals that your average citizen of the time was not offended by the idea of taking a Native child from his family, putting him in a boarding school, and treating him harshly until he learned to be “civilized”. They might have been offended by learning about the sexual abuse or the degree of physical abuse he suffered, but that part of the secret was the first kind, as it always has been. It only required a perpetrator, a victim, and an uncaring administration looking the other way.
Lynchings in the South were not abhorrent to the average white citizen. How could they be when half the county showed up? I think they may have been viewed as unfortunate, the way many view the death penalty today, but not offensive to the conscience. If the lynched had complied with the law, they thought. If they had not touched or eyeballed that girl. Even if it was by accident, they needed to know their place. These thoughts were not secret to the people of the time. They were public and freely shared at town halls or at barbecues.
America isn’t unique or exceptional in its structural injustices compared to other empires in history. However, it is exceptional in its ability to engage in denial. As we have moved into the current age, we have papered over this history with a complex web of re-imaginings, partial truths, and blatant lies about who we have been. When we make Native people mythical figures like elves in Tolkienesque fantasies, we can conveniently make them vanish from “human lands” the way the fey did in the stories from across the sea. When we use the blood of Rev. Dr. King as a propitiating sacrifice for the sins of the nation against black people, we can declare ourselves sin-free and clean, and not look at how the structures we set up continue to grind up black bodies and spirits. When we let the Lost Cause mythology from the defeated South dominate our understanding of what and why the Civil War was, it is not a far leap to having white people who were organized by wealthy backers and who truck with Confederate apologists and neo-Nazis be portrayed as freedom fighters like Rosa Parks instead of as the literal and ideological children and grandchildren of the people who fought against her.
The solution to understanding a secret, and understanding whether you should believe what you hear when you are told one, is this. If you are being told a secret of the first kind, how many people have to be in on it for it to be true? If thousands of people have to keep a tight-lipped secret, while acting against their expected interests, it’s unlikely that that’s a real secret. For the second kind, we can look at the primary and secondary sources from the era. Who would those people have been? What would they honestly have thought? And what sadness or shame do they or their descendants get to hide from if they tell a story that completely contradicts the data?
To understand the breadth and depth of a historical secret, don’t ask your favorite conservative or liberal pundits what the story is. Instead, read the sources and voices of the time and listen to what they would tell you themselves.