It is hardly consolation to be reminded that this is not the first low point in American history. But a look back at that past does reveal that, at the very least, even the worst moments contain lessons that can still apply today. And if we listen to those lessons, perhaps a better future will be possible. With that in mind, TIME asked 21 historians to weigh in with their picks for “worst moments” that hold a lesson—and what they think those experiences can teach us.
Hansberry "did not assume she knew all the answers, but she did want to see a less violent and more revolutionary world brought into existence. Hansberry never survived to see that world, but Perry’s recovery of her vision has made it all the more possible."
Howard Zinn wrote one of the most popular books on American history ever. A People’s History of the United States has sold an astonishing two million copies since its first publication in 1980. The success of the book can also be measured by the way that it spawned a new genre of “people-centered” renditions of history. Zinn’s approach to history essentially inverted the traditional approach that placed the rich and powerful, along with the institutions they governed, as the central motors in the development of society. It was history told from above. Alternatively, Zinn championed an approach to history from the bottom up or from the perspective of “the people.”
Donald Joseph Goines was born on December 15, 1936, in Chicago. Father Joseph and mother Myrtle were hardworking migrants from the South who had managed to open up their own cleaning store. Around 1940 the family, which included older sister Marie, relocated to Detroit and resumed the cleaning business. It was in the Motor City that, according to biographer Eddie B. Allen Jr., Goines started down a dark path.
My grandmother always reminds me: you have lost your mother-tongue. When I return to Sri Lanka for brief visits, she tells me how I used to understand her. Like my nephews and nieces do now when I was a child, I would listen to spoken Tamil and reply in English. There is nothing I can say to her accusation except to agree. Yes, I have lost my mother tongue, the words, the sounds, the rhythms of speaking to which I was born. I willfully lost this language, after we moved to Australia where my voice, my skin, my body continually marked me as foreign, different, other. As we all know, primary school children can be cruel: losing my mother-tongue was a way to survive.