How do you think about our country today? What do you think about the stories and myths that seem to buttress what we as Americans tell ourselves about our exceptionalism, our patriotism, about our forebears who never did anything damaging, hurtful, abusive, uninformed, or problematic? Forbears who never lied, never supported slavery? Were you taught that Columbus discovered America? About Paul Revere's Midnight Ride? That the Declaration of Independence was signed on July 4th? That Betsy Ross designed and sewed the first American Flag? That the Founding Fathers were Christians? That the Star-Spangled Banner is a tune composed in the United States? That the Liberty Bell was cracked on July 4th? That the Battle of the Alamo was fought to keep Americans Free?
In Forget the Alamo, Tomlinson and Stanford write: "The Alamo is an American touchstone…a symbol of national resolve, looming during the 1950's as an embodiment of U.S. determination to halt the spread of Communism. During the 60's, LBJ repeatedly invoked it to generate backing for the war in Vietnam. In time it was embraced by "patriots" and right wingers who viewed Santa Anna's Mexican Army as a stand-in for all manner of threats, from Communists to brown-skinned immigrants pouring across the Mexican border…[And] The [Texas] State Board of Education actually has standing orders that school children must be taught a 'heroic' version of Alamo History."
I grew up in Texas, actually I lived almost 40 years in Texas. I was taught the "heroic" version of Alamo History. I didn't question it until I was in college when I started to hear a smidgen of the more complicated history of the Alamo and really of the United States. Being exposed to this new information happened around the time I started attending First Jefferson Unitarian Universalist Church. In my Unitarian Universalist congregation, I was encouraged to question, to doubt, to not accept a truth just because someone told me or I read it. Nowadays I would say do not accept a truth just because you saw it on the internet. The members of my UU church encouraged me to study and consider truth by looking within myself and by seeking trusted sources for cultural context, for more complete in-depth information, and for various perspectives. I was encouraged and supported in a responsible search for truth and meaning.
Even as I started my spiritual journey in Unitarian Universalism, I didn't immediately embrace the complicated history of the United States. I guess I was still so enamored with being a United States Citizen, proud to be part of its experiment in democracy, its balance of powers with the executive, legislative, and judicial branches, its free-speech, and its freedom of religion; and its high standard of living. There was so much to be thankful for living in this country at least for me, a white cis-gender heterosexual male. I didn't put much energy into looking at how complicated our forebears and our country's history actually are. After all, it all worked for me so why would I spend much time looking too closely at our history?
However, eventually my curiosity led me to ask some harder questions and as one domino fell after another in my quest for truth and knowledge, I became increasingly aware that some of what I had been told and taught in school about the history of this country was an exaggeration at least, but most the American history I was taught was over-simplified, distorted, or just plain lies. It was around this time that I picked up Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong by James W. Loewen. And I read: "So long as our textbooks hide from us the roles that people of color have played in exploration, from at least 6000 BC to the twentieth century, they encourage us to look to Europe and its extensions as the seat of all knowledge and intelligence. So long as they say “discover,” they imply that whites are the only people who really matter. So long as they simply celebrate Columbus, rather than teach both sides of his exploit, they encourage us to identify with white Western exploitation rather than study it.” He went on to say: “In sum, U.S. history is no more violent and oppressive than the history of England, Russia, Indonesia, or Burundi - but neither is it exceptionally less violent.”
Were you taught that George Washington's dentures were made of wood? They weren't that's a myth. Washington bought teeth from enslaved people. "It is important to note that while Washington paid these enslaved people for their teeth, it does not mean they had a real option to refuse his request" (mountvernon.org) Thomas Jefferson called slavery a “moral depravity” and a “hideous blot,” but continued to hold well over a 150 human beings as property his entire adult life. And what about all the myths that support white supremacy culture in the United States--Betsy Ross really didn't design or sew the first American Flag; Paul Revere was just one of many riders that night; many of the Founding Fathers were not Christian and so on. And now there are people in power—in state governments, for instance in Texas-- who want to deny or suppress our complicated history, making it illegal to discuss racism or use the 1619 project-- which "aims to reframe the country's history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the very center of the United States' national narrative--or discuss critical race theory—which is an academic movement of civil-rights scholars and activists in the United States who seek to critically examine U.S. law as it intersects with issues of race in the U.S.--in the classroom because these make the United States look bad or they just want to deny our complicated, often violent, racist history.
So what was I to do? How was I to see this country? Feel about this country? I was brought up on a white-washed, everything's great, move-along-no-problems here history of the United States. As I delved deeper and understood more about this country, I wondered how could I even celebrate the Fourth of July? Just this week, the Unitarian Universalist Association put this out on their Facebook page: "July Fourth is far more complicated than just a long weekend filled with backyard BBQ's and fireworks. That tradition is white America’s version of Independence Day. But what about the people whose land we live on? As the United States reckons with the racism and marginalization that are undeniable parts of its history, it’s important to speak about the harm faced by Indigenous people at the hands of colonizers. As we light our grills this year to celebrate Independence Day, we must remember that colonialism is a current and ongoing process. This land that we call home is Indigenous Peoples’ land. This land is a part of who they are. It’s a mixture of their blood, their past, their current, and their future."
So here I am on the 4th of July wondering. Wondering what to celebrate; Wondering what to think of this country I have loved. Wondering. As I read through Lies My Teacher Told Me, I remembered a few words that Loewen offered: “The antidote to feel-good history is not feel-bad history but honest and inclusive history.” Can I love my country as I look at it honestly? Can I love my country even as I look at through a more inclusive historical lens? Can I love my country as people in power try to suppress an honest and inclusive history? What about you? How do you feel about the USA as you look at it more honestly, and as you begin to see it through a more inclusive historical lens? The answer is not simple. At least the answer is not simple for me.
The Buddha once said: "Those who have failed to work toward the truth have missed the purpose of living." Work toward the truth. Well as I learn more, read more, discuss with people with varying perspectives more, and look within more, I think I am beginning to really see this country more clearly, more realistically, more honestly. And I am committed to continuing this journey, even when I feel so many complicated feelings—anger, sadness, guilt, fear, and joy. You might ask "How can I feel joy, with all this dishonesty and obstructionism and white supremacy culture surrounding me." Well, I answer because I am on a spiritual and historical journey, and I am learning more about myself. And I see others wanting to learn more about our complicated history. Did you know that on June 5, 2020 "almost all of the top best-selling books on Amazon (seven out of 10) and at Barnes & Noble (nine out of 10) [took on topics around systemic racism], including How to Be an Antiracist, by Ibram X. Kendi, White Fragility, by Robin DiAngelo, and So You Want to Talk About Race, by Ijeoma Oluo. [And] On the most recent New York Times list of best-selling nonfiction in e-books and print, five of the Top 15 titles address racism. One of them, The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander’s book about mass incarceration, was published 10 years ago." (The New York Times, People Are Marching Against Racism. They’re Also Reading About It. By Elizabeth A. Harris)
I know many of you know that we have a Decentering Whiteness Book Club here at UU Miami. And at times people outside the church have attended. During our most recent class a young man from another state joined us. He said he was moderate—I think he was talking about political and social, not right wing or left. Yet as he spoke, he talked about how he felt that all this diversity and inclusivity was being shoved down peoples' throats and he didn't believe it was right. He said he had read White Fragility, How to be an Antiracist, and other books on race, and he didn't agree with the worldview that racism has been and is problematic in our country. He felt the good Christian values of treating others as you want to be treated would stop all this divisiveness. I guess you can see where this is going. Our intrepid group of Unitarian Universalists listened respectfully and offered our views, our thoughts; we didn't try to convince him, but we did plant seeds that there were other ways that white people see the complicated history of this country with racism and white supremacy deeply entrenched our culture. How taking away rights and privileges from people of color negatively impacts all of us. How another way of treating others might be to treat them as they want to be treated. He felt that would be too hard because he didn't know them. I suggested perhaps he could get to know them in order to treat them the way they wanted to be treated. He talked about feeling verbally attacked in another group on antiracism he attended. But in our book study no one got angry, though I did see a couple times that a few UU heads shook and there was more than one eye-roll. We let this young man know that despite our differences, he was welcome to join us in expressing his views; and we thanked him for joining us and engaging in a respectful discussion. I felt joy. I still feel joy. I and those Unitarian Universalists on that Zoom Book Study were making progress on our spiritual and historical journey, learning more about racism, learning more about white supremacy, and learning more about how to engage with people who have different views than us about the very difficult issue of racism in the United States.
Perhaps that is what I will celebrate on this 4th of July—that many of people in this country are reading, learning, making progress toward understanding what racism is and how it has influenced the laws and policies and structure and culture of this country. While we are all in different places on the spectrum of understanding, more people are engaging in conversations about race than ever before. More books on racism and its history in the US are being written and read than ever before. Yes, I know there are people who are still trying to hold onto "Remember the Alamo" and "Patriotism" --meaning whitewashing history. But today, I rejoice in our progress, not in our perfection. I want to love our country because of its diversity and the willingness of more people in this country to stretch themselves and their worldview. Yes, there is work to be done, and I for one will keep on doing it—reading, learning, advocating for antiracism and anti-oppression, but today I celebrate that I see and feel progress being made. May this celebration be my prayer for our country.
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