July 27, 2016

Who We Are Today

I’m troubled by the backlash against Michelle Obama’s statement that the White House was built by slaves.

I’ve seen people saying, “It wasn’t only slaves who built it!” Others say, “The government didn’t own the slaves!” (And now, thank goodness, Bill Oh Really has stepped up to assure us that the slaves who built it were treated well.)

It is demonstrably true that slaves were among the laborers who built the White House, and I’m puzzled that anyone would be given a moment’s pause by the assertion that they were.

I used to work at a county archives. Many of the patrons I helped were amateur genealogists unearthing their family history. Sometimes people would be especially surprised to learn that their ancestors were slaveowners. One man ambled away from me in abashed silence after I helped him read the handwritten deed with which his ancestor secured ownership of a slave.

Our history with slavery is a sore so many of us don’t want anyone to touch.

It goes without saying that we, as Americans, both as individuals and in society, are who we are today because of the hard work, ingenuity, creativity, suffering, bravery, and grit of our ancestors.

But, at least for some, it seems to need saying that we are who we are today because of the forced labor of the slaves who were our ancestors. And that we are who we are because of the rebellion of those slaves and the continued (and continuing) rebellion of people who suffered (and still suffer) under the legacy of oppression that slavery began.

We are who we are because of the labor of immigrants from all over the world who were (and are) belittled and threatened, people who worked hard and carried on through vehement and often violent opposition to secure their descendants’ place in a country they believed to be a blessing despite evidence otherwise.

We are where we are today because our ancestors took this land by force from the native peoples who were already prospering here.

If my words make you uncomfortable, I’m sorry. I am uncomfortable, too. But misdeeds and mistakes are integral parts of our whole truth whether we like it or not.

Our greatness does not come from never having sunk into error and sin, and it certainly doesn’t come from pretending our shadow isn’t there. On the contrary, the active work of bravely calling out and then willfully overcoming our faults has made and will continue to make us great.

I loved Michelle Obama’s speech the other night because that kind of greatness is what she was talking about. Hard-won hopeful greatness. Not false greatness that comes from blustering and bragging and being too thin-skinned to face the critical self-examination that progress requires.

And like her, that is the kind of greatness I want my children to honor and to learn.

We have an abundance of hope and still so much trouble to face with it. Today, there is plenty of history for us and our children to make.