© 2019 -  Joshua Wilkey - This Appalachian Life

Celebrate this weekend, but repent, too.

July 5, 2019

In our zeal for collective celebration of independence, we almost always neglect to acknowledge the parts of our history that are not worthy of fireworks or parades or a day off from work.

 

In fact, it isn't just that we fail to acknowledge our collective sins. Ignoring the wrongs we have committed collectively is bad enough, but we take it a step farther. Those who speak out to remind us of the terrible things done by our government, on our behalf, are branded as unpatriotic. They are bad Americans, the reasoning goes, because they dare say something critical about our star-spangled-spectacular country. Here in 'Merica, we don't handle criticism particularly well, especially when that criticism involves acknowledging that we have done some rather despicable things in our quest for a more perfect union.  

 

The phenomenon is not unique to the United States, but I am not sure we should be terribly happy with the company we keep when we consider the other nations in the world that have a decided inability to reflect critically on their past (or present) sins. While we don't execute those who are critical of our government like they do in Russia, China, or North Korea, neither are we receptive to critiques, no matter how accurate they are. Talking heads and radio pundits, many of whom have the unwavering support of the current administration, call for those who are "unpatriotic" by virtue of their criticism of the US to lose their jobs, their academic appointments, and their elected positions. These are the things that happen in banana republics and totalitarian nations. We are better than that here in the US, I hope, even if our rhetoric does not always reflect this. 

 

As an historian, I am convinced that one of the reasons we are unable to critically reflect on the history of our nation is because we do not know it. Though things are slowly improving year by year thanks to really good teacher training and a focus on teaching with primary sources, many Americans went through their entire educational experience without learning anything critical about the United States. In some states, it has even at times been illegal to teach "negative" things in history classes in public schools. This is how some school systems ended up with textbooks that referred to slaves as "migrant workers" and portrayed the Trail of Tears as a voluntary and amicable relocation (looking at you, Texas). From the Dred Scott decision to Japanese internment camps to the Great Depression to Vietnam, there are terrible things to confront from every part of US history. Candid discussions about these events would give us more opportunity for nuance and help us better understand how complicated and problematic our own history is. Perhaps that's why we don't talk about them. 

 

Though I tend to be jaded about the ways those in power have worked to systematically marginalize others based on race, class, and gender, I am not the sort who doesn't acknowledge that there are some things about the United States that are great. Many Americans enjoy everyday freedoms that come so naturally that they are taken for granted. We tout our freedom of speech and religion, and we are collectively proud to be the wealthiest and most powerful nation on the globe. We have the ability to make a difference in the lives of marginalized and suffering people in our own country and anywhere else in the world, and sometimes we use that ability to change lives for the better. We have developed technologies that have changed the world, and we are still known far and wide as a bastion of freedom and opportunity. We have a world-class education system, and the stability of our government means that we enjoy a stable economy. At many points in our history, we have stood up to bullies on the global stage and worked to protect marginalized peoples. Perhaps the greatest thing about the US, which I hope has not evaporated in the current polarized political climate is that, when faced with great adversity, we work with our neighbors to solve problems and take care of one another. 

 

However, what is lost in our celebratory discussions about being the greatest country in the world is that not everyone in the US has equal access to the freedom and opportunity we are so proud of. Not everyone has an equal shot, or even any shot at all, at living the American Dream. Worse, despite overwhelming evidence, some still refuse to acknowledge the striking inequalities that exist here in the US. There are millions among us who simply deny the existence of systematic racism or inequality no matter how much evidence is presented. This is a disconnect that needs to be repaired. We will continue to be limited in how much we can achieve as a nation so long as we refuse to acknowledge that not everyone has equal opportunity.  It is an indisputable truth that our government has not always worked to foster freedom or equality for everyone. When we do not acknowledge this, we can't create the important spaces needed to work toward solutions and justice for those denied access to freedom or equality. 

 

Because so much of our own history is incredibly problematic, I think it is essential that we acknowledge it and strive to do better. Pretending it wasn't so bad is historical malpractice. Simply dismissing the evils we have committed as a nation as "just the way things were back then" can be done only by those who do not bother to learn the rich history of the pursuit of equality. Even if most people bought into the idea that despicable things like slavery and genocide and misogyny were acceptable, there has never been a time when there was not an active resistance working for justice and real equality. It was "the way things were" only because those in power made sure that's the way things were. This does not make it right or acceptable. 

 

The hard truth that we must face is this: as heirs to the country founded on July 4, 1776, we own shares not only in the most successful liberal democracy in history, but also in the country that committed systematic genocide in order to empty the continent and make room for the country we celebrate this weekend. Our own government murdered hundreds of thousands of indigenous peoples and forcibly removed the most of those who survived in order to make the continent "empty" to be explored and settled by white people. If you live in the United States today, you live on land that was stolen from indigenous people your own government tried to exterminate. While we all have joint ownership of one of the wealthiest nations in human history, we also must acknowledge that much of the wealth we now enjoy was earned literally on the backs of enslaved humans who were denied freedom and even humanity by the very government allegedly formed to foster freedom and equality. Even if you did not ever own a slave or klll an indigenous person, you are here to eat burgers and light fireworks today because your ancestors committed egregious sins in pursuit of a more perfect union.

 

What might be even harder to accept is that our sins are not just in the past. We live in a country with growing socioeconomic inequality, where families find themselves bankrupt simply because someone got sick. We live in a nation that has more imprisoned people than any other in the world, and where a disproportionate number of those imprisoned are people of color. We reside in a country where people who work full-time still cannot afford to live and where the most reliable determinant of one's socioeconomic class is that of their parents, not their own talents or work ethic. As most of us enjoy cookouts and parades and funny hats, way too many of our neighbors remain impoverished or imprisoned with little hope for a live lived truly in freedom or liberty. 

 

I continue to yearn for that more perfect union we talk about on the 4th of July. I want to live in a society where equality and freedom are accessible to everyone, and where we dedicate ourselves to one another rather than to the almighty dollar. I want to live in a country where I can feel pride because we finally got it right rather than continued shame because we inherited a country forged on the dead bodies of people of color and can't even bring ourselves to admit it. In order for us to get to a place of renewed pride, rooted in reality rather than in mythology, we have to be honest with ourselves about our past. 

 

One of the most offensive parts of American culture is our hubris. Our utter failure to acknowledge the sins of our past is an extension of that hubris. Admitting that we have done some egregious and sinful things in our past, and that we sometimes continue to do so, is, for me, the surest way to secure our future as a country that believes in meaningful freedom as a reality rather than as something we pretend everyone enjoys. When we fail to acknowledge the terrible things we did even as we pretended to honor freedom and liberty, we have no context for recognizing threats to freedom that have existed for generations. If we don't admit to our failures, we stand little chance of understanding our need to do better. 

 

In a nation where so many of the most patriotic among us are also Bible-carrying Christians, why can't we carve out some time before or after our celebrating for a bit of corporate repentance? The Greek word for "repent" is μετανοώ (metanoia). It means, literally, to turn and go the other way. If we acknowledge the disturbing parts of US history in the spirit of metanoia, vowing to turn our backs and go the other direction, we will continue to bring about that more perfect union our founding leaders wrote about. That, to me, seems not like a lack of patriotism, but like a firm commitment to the principles on which we purport to stand. That is something I can feel good about celebrating on July 4th. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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