“To straighten a stick, you first need to bend it the other way.” —Montaigne
The Constitution is a glorious piece of paper. It’s the Mission Statement of the first nation formed as an intentional community, one based on ideas rather than simply being born in the same place as others. And they’re powerful and noble ideas, are they not?
But ideas are mere winged butterflies flying hither and yon until given feet by practice. The radical notion that all are created equal and endowed with the rights of life, liberty and pursuit of happiness was penned by Founding Fathers who owned slaves, lived on land taken from native people’s and whose wives couldn’t vote. Through some peculiar defect in the human psyche, they couldn’t wholly see the contradiction.
And so as the Statue of Liberty beckoned to huddled masses yearning to be free, those landing on the shore quickly learned that this need to validate oneself by being superior to the one next to you had not been eradicated by a mere ship voyage. The subsequent history of the United States can be read as those not given the freedom they were promised asking, begging, pleading, protesting, fighting for their inalienable rights with those in power resisting every step of the way to relinquish one inch of their unearned privilege. And so it continues through tomorrow’s headline.
One of the strategies for catching up to our promise was the creating of Black History month, an attempt to straighten the stick of injustice by revealing the numerous contributions African-Americans have made to the growth of our nation’s achievements. From peanuts to vaccines to traffic lights to the extraordinary accomplishments in music, sports, dance, theater, poetry, art and beyond, it was time for today’s school children and tomorrow’s citizens to learn who to admire and who to thank.
The idea caught on and soon March was Women’s History month and September was Latin-American Heritage Month and May was Asian Pacific Islander Heritage Month and you can see where this was going. But there simply aren’t enough months to hold all the other marginalized people in this country— Native-Americans, Gay and Lesbian Americans, Irish-Americans, Polish-Americans, Jewish-Americans, Muslim-Americans. You get the idea. And I imagine Chinese-Americans would want a separate lens shone on them and not be lumped with Japanese-Americans, Korean-Americans, Cambodian-Americans and vice-versa. The Greek-American would have a different experience than the Anglo-American. Where does one draw the line? And shall we include Adopted-Americans, Dyslexic-Americans, Bald-Americans, Rural-Americans, Old-Americans? In short, if we bend the stick too far in the other direction, we just end up with another bent stick.
I made a suggestion some twenty years ago at my school to have an “Ethnic-American History Month.” Recognizing that part (but not all of our identity) comes from where we come from and honoring the wisdom of investigating and embracing our particular ancestors, all children would choose one slice of their given identity (many, if not all, of which were mixed), research a person or group of people who contributed to American culture and economy, often without recognition and educate each other to appreciate them in hindsight and hear their story. We never ended up trying this (nobody’s fault), but it’s still an idea worth considering. For the greater task is to include the great mix of notable and accomplished people in one subject simply called “American History” and not have to call special attention to them in a given month only, as if to say, “See? She did something important and she was a lesbian Latina-American!” The struggles she faced in her identity can come forth in conversation about the obstacles she faced, but framed in the context of a larger narrative.
That narrative, in short, is the other side of the hyphen, the –American that has helped narrow the gap between the Constitution’s promise and its delivery, that has enriched the culture, that has inspired a future generation. The history of exclusion must be courageously taught, but balanced with the hope of inclusion, the American dream of feeling valued and known and given chances to show who you are and what you can do. By leaning to the other side of the hyphen, we lean away from the separation of affinity groups (without wholly excluding them and recognizing their need) and toward the collective conversation of Americans working toward a common vision. The country is awash in division and some of it is understandable, the way we flock to be with “our own”, but none of it is healthy. The Bill O-Reilly pundits love to feed that demon, Obama’s bid for a unified Congress has purposefully been ignored, but at least in schools we can start to build citizens capable of conversations and holding two ideas together in the interest of our common goals and shared humanity. And if we don’t do it for noble ideals, we will certainly have to do it to face the ecological storm of consequences we have unleashed.
And finally, we will have to lean away from “American” altogether. Yes, begin from the foundation of what the word really means— that's always a worthy reflection. But then continue the conversations with the few hundred other nations and multiple ethnic, religious, cultural mixes on this diverse and complex planet.
At the end of Black History month, as we “lift every voice and sing” and honor the songwriter, let's keep enlarging the choir.