I grew up loving history. Books were my escape, British, French, Russian history in fact or fiction. (Yes, I read War and Peace all the way through! Hated the villagers that ate the soldiers horses…but felt for their despair). But the most enthralling of all was our history, the history of the USA. I seemed to be two people, one who could glory in the heroism of our pioneers, and one who could weep and feel deep sorrow for those tribal families forced to journey on “the trail of tears”. That, in a capsule, is the story of our country. Heroism, great ideas, innovation have a definite place in our historic past, but so, to, do human tragedies, evil deeds and horrific ideas. Teaching only the perceived greatness of our country, only the victories (however tragically they impacted some communities), only how we grew and prospered, is looking at the past through rose colored glasses and ignoring historic reality. We need to add a bit of smoke to our glass and face…and teach…the truth…the whole truth.
The Europeans brought disaster the moment they arrived on this continent. They carried with them disease bugs to which the native population had never been exposed and therefore had no resistance. That, alone, decimated many populations. As the European community expanded a tug of war was created between competing interests. There were periods of peace between one native tribe and a white community in order to stave off another tribe, battles between two native tribes that would draw in their European neighbors, and ultimately all out wars erupting across the continent over the decades. The Revolutionary war found some tribes allying with the British, others with the colonists, with the Iroquois nation splitting and fighting a civil war within the Revolution. This was the beginning of a continental battle for the expanse of “unsettled” territory between two oceans. It was, in essence, a continuation of mankind’s eternal search for a better place, a better life and the innate desire to conquer. Across this vast continent were peaceful tribes, warlike tribes, nomads and settled villages. Unfortunately our antecedents trampled like a giant through all of the above, signing treaties which the next administration proceeded to ignore, and accepting help from the natives while burning their villages. It was not always one way. There were individuals and tribes in the native populations who’s actions were less than, what we consider today, humane. It has to be remembered that the tribes scattered across this land were varied in dress, diet, culture and habits. There were atrocities on both sides and between tribes, but from colonist to pioneer the intruders had the fire power necessary to ultimately win the day.
Then there was the problem of slavery, which involved everything from tearing families apart, to rape, to torture. The picture of a bucolic southern plantation with a genteel family housing a happy, singing, population of slaves is the idea of choice for many of our citizens. It makes the history of slave populations seem a bit more benign, and “for their own good”. There were “nicer” owners and more wicked owners of course, but picture yourself housed in a rough cottage, raising children who will soon be sold, being told what is expected of you every minute of the day, and subject to any kind of discipline the plantation owner chooses to employ if you transgress, even slightly. Like learning to read. There were heroes during this period, both black and white. But there is no denying the stark truth that humans were selling humans.
All of our wars have involved the black community. The first patriot killed during the Boston Massacre is generally thought to be Crispus Attucks, in those times considered a mulattoe since he was a mix of African and Native American. During the Revolution, the War of 1812 and the Civil War there were black soldiers on the front lines. Some were slaves, some were freemen. Many were fighting for what they hoped was a better future, sadly I doubt many found that at war’s end.
Then there came the incarceration of our Japanese citizens during WWII. Our excuse , of course, was that the country they, or their antecedents, came from had attacked us. Many ultimately joined the service, or had sons who enlisted. Yet they lost farms, homes, jobs, and had to find a way to “begin again” after the war. There were a few heroic “white” citizens who took on their neighbors home, farm or business and returned same to the owners after the war ended. Unfortunately, there were many more who usurped such properties for their own benefit.
Following the war was Senator McCarthy’s Red witch hunt, ruining careers, destroying families, and causing suicides. He saw every progressive idea as a move toward Communism, including such humane ideas as curbs on child labor. It took one brave woman in the Senate who had the courage to stand up to the entire body and tell it like it was, shaming McCarthy, and six other Republican Senators who joined her in condemnation of his methods.
In other words, citizens, our country has been built like a patchwork quilt. There is no denying that we have spawned heroes and done great things. We often see such heroism in our darkest hours, and that should be celebrated. We sometimes make great policy choices, such as the Marshall Plan. Picture the difference between the health of Europe after WWII as opposed to the failed policies following WWI. I vividly remember the heroes of the Berlin Airlift flying food and goods into the portion of Berlin blockaded by the Russians. Going backwards, we should applaud all the heroes of the (so called) Underground Railroad: black, white and indigenous peoples. And of course the foresight, courage and planning of our forefathers has given us a strong, and resilient country for over two centuries. Throughout our history individuals have sacrificed their safety, their properties and their lives in service of their community, their people or their country. That said, none of those great persons, or forward serving policies, camouflage the darker aspects of our advance toward a civilized, diversified, all encompassing, all accepting society that so many of us would like to see.
I keep hearing bits about teaching children how great our country is, don’t mention the dark side. Everything our ancestors did was necessary to move the country forward, therefore the bodies left behind were just collateral damage. On the contrary, we need to teach our children this country’s history in its entirety, warts and all. As the saying goes, those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it. To quote Beau of the Fifth Column, “We don’t like to address our moral failures….the scars of history will burst open!” Seeing the world, or the country, through rose colored glasses breeds ignorance and encourages continued fear of “the other”. Complete, transparent truth is the path to knowledge and understanding. Love our history, both the bad and the good, learn from that history, and move forward to a better world.
Stay safe, remember the pandemic of 1918 and wear your mask.