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American history: beyond a selective remembrance

john a. powell, director, Othering & Belonging Institute | July 5, 2017

Yesterday on the Fourth of July, many celebrated U.S. history, or at least part of it, while others were thinking about the many parts we are inclined to ignore. We are a country deeply divided in the way we look at our history. There are some Americans who think “real” Americans are, and always have been, white, or at least represent some version of white values, whatever those may be. Maybe those are associated with guns, maybe it’s the exclusion. Maybe they are the values who speak to those still looking for a wall.

There are others who took time yesterday to reflect on the long march, temporarily stalled, that this country continues to take towards a more perfect union. Those folks are likely to tell a different history of the United States. While Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence were celebrated, these folks are likely to think of the women enslaved by Jefferson who bore six of his children. They are more likely to think about how this land was ripped from the people who were already here, who still suffer at the hands of greed and indifference. Think of Standing Rock. Do we really need another pipeline? These folks are the ones likely to remember our American internment camps built to imprison our fellow Americans of Japanese descent.

There are some who may say this is just a rehashing of old history, a history that is now behind us. But one only has to look at today’s hate-fueled online media, our legal system, and our prisons to understand the very current effects our history continues to have on women, people of color, the environment, and even whites who need the health care provided by the Affordable Care Act.

Despite the select narratives told by some, this country belongs to all of us. The Fourth of July reminds us that our history is full of terrible and wonderful things. But still it is our history. If our future is to be better, we must approach our history with clear eyes, and not just pick and choose the parts we like. The Fourth of July is a time to be reminded that this is our country with all of it greatness and its imperfections, just like this is our shared planet. Neither belongs to just one group or just one religion.

While claims of a shared past may be ignored, there is no denying that we are bound together by a shared future. I hope we work together to make it a future worth living in, a future where the humanity of all people is recognized and respected, a future where we are more animated by love than fear.

America, let’s do better.

Comments to “American history: beyond a selective remembrance

  1. Prof. Powell, thank you for this post. My wife and I graduated in 1963 and have experienced both short and long term successes of President Johnson’s Civil Rights legislation, together with the continued consequences of the our failures to ratify Equal Rights legislation, into an era where we face continuous escalations of Us/Them dichotomies.

    My greatest disappointment today is that I grew up in an age of opportunities produced for us by the sacrifices of the Greatest Generation that we have failed to build upon and perpetuate for the benefit of our newest and all future generations. Today I wonder where we go from here because current events have turned us into a society that threatens itself from within more than any time in history. Our most recent election proved that far too many Americans have not been able to participate in the opportunities produced by the Greatest Generation that both political parties have failed to strengthen and perpetuate.

    I now realize that the best opportunity that Berkeley provided me was the opportunity to meet and marry my most wonderful classmate, who was born in Nanking, which further produced opportunities for a lifestyle where we have not had to envy anyone. However, the hideous downside is the realization that, after whatever successes we produced in the 60s and 70s, we are now facing the consequences of the failures of our political and intellectual leaders to truly unite every race, creed and color into a nation of freedom, equality and cooperation at last.

    One question produced by our CALIFORNIA alumni magazine that I keep repeating is, considering the fact that climate changes are reducing our opportunities, “Can We Adapt in Time?”

    Or, to put it another way, shall we ever learn to communicate and cooperate so we can unite once again to truly take advantage of our Declaration of Independence to produce life liberty and the pursuit of happiness for everyone at last, or are we going to continue down the path of the types of social, political and economic failures that produced the Declaration in the first place?

  2. Barack Obama is biracial.
    White mother, African father.
    Yet the universal narrative denies this fact.
    Biracial people comprise one of the fastest growing demographics in America.
    “If our future is to be better, we must approach our history with clear eyes, and not just pick and choose the parts we like.”

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