History as a Prod for Transformation
I find it increasingly hard to have much national pride the more I learn about the real history of this country. There are a lot of offensive things that have happened. The genocide against indigenous people of the Americas beginning in 1492. Chattel slavery that became institutionalized beginning in 1619. The whole Southwestern portion of the country taken from Mexico. The oppression of peoples of Spanish and Central and South American descent. The exploitation and discrimination against Chinese, Japanese, Asian and Pacific Islanders in the Western part of the country. Jim Crow domestic terrorism after the Civil War. And then the worldwide oppression of women, girls and those who are gender variant or have a sexual orientation other than heterosexual. And the epic neglect and oppression throughout history of those with disabilities. The more I learn about the past, the more disturbed and horrified I am of “the good old days.”
Who were benefitting while all these people were suffering? My European ancestors, some of whom have lived on this continent since the late 1600’s, invited here to settle by William Penn in what is now Eastern Shore Maryland and Pennsylvania. Whether or not they owned slaves or harmed Indigenous people, they benefited from the governing systems that codified oppression and economic systems built on a slave economy.
Because of the guilt, regret, and shame I experience investigating this history, I appreciate emotionally why people might not want to do it. That would be especially true if one were to believe that the past were better times than the present, a heritage to celebrate and cherish. The mythologizing of history filters out the atrocities and views so much that was bad, even evil, through a gauzy filter that softens the edges. The 1619 Project sponsored by the New York Times rips the filters off. It reveals the omissions and distortions in what these folks would rather remember: a sanitized version that can be handed down to their children so they will celebrate their ancestors – who may not be worthy of their praise. Critical Race Theory also exposes the hypocrisy of passing laws that claim to address the past but are undermined by the continuing and minimally reformed systems of White Supremacy that they also don’t want to acknowledge.
So while I’m quite critical of those attacking the 1619 Project and Critical Race Theory, emotionally I understand their … and my … predicament. I share the desire to have pride in one’s heritage and history. Dismantling that pride has been very unpleasant. I’m willing to do it though because I don’t want to live a lie. Building Beloved Community will require an accounting of that past and restorative processes such as truthful accounting of the harm done, reconciliation and reparations.
The delusion to expose is that the past was somehow better and we’d be happier if we could go backward in time rather than forward. Perhaps this is a biproduct of the experience of nostalgia. Yet it is an illusion to think there is any way to do that or even any value in doing it. If you are a former slave, there isn’t a better time to go back to much further than 1965. That doesn’t mean there weren’t positive experiences to appreciate in the past. The stories of Black Harlem or Black Wall Street were and are inspirational. Yet there is no reason to want to roll the clock back to those days.
Another way to engage the horrors of our history is as stimulation and motivation to change. The pain generated by remembering the crimes and injustice of the past can energize the resolve to respond, grow, change, and develop. Being willing to face that past directly and honestly might drive this nation to live into a beautiful vision of multi-generational, multi-ethnic, multi-racial, multi-religious harmonious community embedded in the heart of who and what America can and even aspires to be.
This approach is grounded in positive, inspirational, core values, practices, and ideals to which our Unitarian and Universalist ancestors aspired and passed forward to us. They may not have been able to create a nation that embodied the values of democracy, equality, freedom, opportunity, peace, and justice. Yet many made those commitments and acted to affirm those values. We can acknowledge their failures, recognize the limitations of their understanding, and appreciate how they put them into action. We can also celebrate the times they did stand up and fight for those values whether they succeeded or not.
May we respond to Samuel Anthony Wright’s challenge to create that future:
We would be one in building for tomorrow
a nobler world than we have known today.
We would be one in searching for that meaning
which binds our hearts and points us on our way.
As one we pledge ourselves to greater service,
with love and justice, strive to make us free.