January 1, 2020


Liberty, Equality, and Identity: Who we are--as a country and as individuals--owes an enormous debt to African American history. (VICTORIA BUTLER, JANUARY 1, 2020, The Bulwark)

Hand-in-hand with my grandchildren--11-year-old Lucia and 9-year-old William--I recently walked out of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., filled with gratitude and a deeper understanding of what it means to be an American. Museums hold our personal and collective histories. The photographs and artifacts, the paintings and panoramas, the documents and maps, the uniforms and tattered textiles from lives long gone not only show us where we came from, but they help us understand who we are. Although I am white, I left the African American Museum with a deepened appreciation of the fact that my understanding of myself as an American--indeed, my very identity, the sum of all the things that make me who I am--owes a great deal to the African American experience.

We began our visit in the museum basement, in the bowels of the slave ships with the shackles and sickness, recoiling at the cruelty but also bearing witness to the indomitable human spirit. My granddaughter, Lucia, was visibly moved by both the suffering and the resilience. [...]

Like my grandchildren, I was awed by the triumphs of individual African Americans--but what inspired me most was the persistent, unwavering faith of an oppressed people in the American ideal of equality, an ideal best and most famously expressed by a slave holder: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal." Year after year, decade after decade, century after century--despite very grim objective realities--African Americans held tight to the American founding rhetoric of equality and liberty. They have believed in the promise of America and, in their fights for liberty and rights and respect and dignity and equality, struggled relentlessly to realize that promise.

African Americans are not alone in treasuring the promise of America. Immigrants and refugees, representing every faith and ethnicity on earth, have fled famine, violence, political repression, religious discrimination, and economic hardship to build new lives here. Tearing themselves from families and friends, they headed for an alien shore that offered the hope of equality and opportunity. These immigrant communities, many of which have fully assimilated, have contributed enormously to our economy, politics, and culture.

As we wandered from gallery to gallery in the African American Museum, I thought about the alchemy that gives a nation its identity. The notion, popularized a century ago, of America as a "melting pot" in which various metals combine to form a durable alloy has lost credence. More recently, the metaphor of a "salad bowl"--in which different cultures retain their distinctiveness, like ingredients tossed together and splashed with oil and vinegar--has been in vogue. Pollsters and pundits crudely pigeonhole us into groups, magnifying our differences and minimizing our commonalities.

Posted by at January 1, 2020 8:04 AM