When I say “American history,” what do you think of? What people or events come to mind? If you had to choose one word to describe your impression of our nation’s history thus far, what would it be? I wonder what our campus’ answers would look like. I imagine one of the top answers would be “freedom.” Maybe “proud.” Others would surely take a different approach, with words like “shameful” or “oppressive.” I think it is safe to assume that we would not all be in agreement. So who’s right? Or at least, who’s more right? We are 244 years into this American experiment; so, in 2020, what’s the verdict?
The answer is it’s complicated. Yes, I know that’s a cop out, but that’s the best answer we’ve got. It’s not a spicy or inspiring answer, but the truth often isn’t. It is tempting to ignore the nuance of our history and instead embrace a one-sided, washed-over view of American history. This is dangerous and must be avoided. We can’t even begin to discuss where we are as a country and where we should be heading if we don’t even know how we got here. In order to properly recognize the context of the current state of our nation, we have to be honest about our nation’s past. We must do the best we can to set aside all biases or agendas and evaluate our history from the perspective of an objective observer.
I believe that when you approach our history in this way, you will see many great triumphs and successes that we should take pride in. Our nation was founded on principles of liberty and freedom that offer Americans incredible empowerment and opportunity. Our destiny lies in the hands of the people, not a tyrant. In many ways, Americans have used this responsibility in admirable ways that have been of great benefit to the world.
But the story does not end there. The voices of the privileged sing the praises of our forefathers, while the cries of the oppressed often fall on deaf ears and are seldom recorded on the pages of history. Ideas of evil and hatred have tragically found a comfortable home in America since our country’s conception. It would be impossible for me to list every group that has been systemically oppressed and discriminated against in America. It is a sad fact that those in power have often used lies to justify why certain groups of people are undeserving of the rights afforded to “true Americans.”
Both sides of America are true and must be acknowledged. We should take pride in our nation’s crowning achievements, and our hearts should break at our nation’s unspeakable tragedies. We have to see both. However, many people today refuse to see both. It saddens me to see people attack one another from polarized positions on this subject. It is the job of the responsible American to instead speak truth and lift every voice from our history.
Looking forward, I have great hope for our future. I think our nation’s most important function is the ability to keep moving forward. Our institutions have time and time again struck down oppressive systems of the past and opened up new avenues of freedom for future generations. Laws do that. Government can work. That is an American tradition we can rally behind. But to move further along the path towards fully realizing the founding principles of our nation for all people, we have to first be honest about where we come from. And, to make a long story short, it’s complicated.