I’ve been wondering what the 4th of July could mean this year, given all we’ve been through. I decided to do some reading.
I started with First Principles: What America’s Founders Learned from the Greeks and Romans and How That Shaped Our Country, by Thomas E. Hicks. After the presidential election of 2016, Hicks, a military historian, sensed our core values were being challenged. He decided to take a fresh look at our origins. The book gave me new appreciation for the character, complexities and contributions of Washington, Adams, Jefferson and Madison. But it also added complexity to the story.
While praising the virtues of our founders, he lists issues where, in retrospect, they fell short: “Third, and most troubling, was their acceptance of human bondage, which would prove disastrous to the nation they designed. Often seeing it as part of the natural order, they wrote it into the fundamental law of the nation, so sustained a system that was deeply inhumane and rested on a foundation of physical and sexual abuse, including torture.”[i]
“Some of George Washington’s “famous false teeth,” notes the historian Henry Wieneck, came from enslaved humans, and had been pulled from their living jaws.”[ii]
At Jefferson’s Monticello, “A small boy being horsewhipped by a visitor was just part of the background of the bustling plantation scene.”[iii]
In late 1775, Lord Dunmore was the British Royal Governor of Virginia. Knowing the colonists were getting close to rebellion, he “…issued a royal proclamation declaring martial law and promising freedom to slaves who joined the royal forces. This concern about freeing the slaves, concludes the historian Jill Lepore, was the factor that, more than issues of taxation and representation, or the fighting in Massachusetts, tipped the scales in favor of American Independence.”[iv]
Of the four founders, three were slaveholders, and only George Washington freed as many as he could in his will.
When I finished First Principles, I wanted to learn more about the experience of slavery.
I read Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead. It portrays the struggle for freedom of a young woman born into bondage. It’s a compelling story describing the brutality, torture, sexual abuse, degradation, daily fear, and family chaos of her life, and the casual disregard shown by most whites. And it also illustrates the tenacity and courage of someone knowing they deserve to be free.
I have always felt deep respect for my own ancestors and what they endured as immigrants, and I always will. This book made me realize how the challenges they faced, while very real, were a world apart from the suffering of African Americans.
Now I’ve started Frederick Douglas, Prophet of Freedom by David Blight. I’ve always heard about Douglas, but never took the time to discover his story. His father was most likely the white overseer at his childhood plantation who routinely raped and beat slave women, including his mother, who was taken from him at an early age. But he learned how to read – a dangerous thing for slaves – and his brilliant mind began grappling with the cruel paradoxes of America. In a church in Baltimore, he heard a message of faith that he realized applied to all human beings, not just whites. He escaped and became one of the most eloquent and impactful figures in American history.
Our history is a harsh reality. How do we deal with it?
Last week I introduced Parker Palmer’s concept of the “Tragic Gap,” and how it can apply to our personal lives. I believe it’s also a helpful way to look at our shared American experience.
America certainly began with high ideals, truly revolutionary for the time. But our story has been complicated from the beginning. We make some progress, but then discover new reminders of how we fall short.
We can experience two temptations. One temptation is to become so defensive of the ideals that we don’t want to acknowledge anything that challenges them, a state he calls “irrelevant idealism.” On the other hand, we can become so discouraged we descend into “corrosive cynicism,” giving up on the hope for any progress.
But we can find that third way by learning to stand in the “Tragic Gap.”
Standing in the tragic gap means we are still devoted to the ideals but have the patience and fortitude to deal with hard realities as they emerge.
It helps to remember times in which we have seen light come out of darkness.
We can see the harsh realities of war in every generation. But we also know that war and conflict can be followed by peace and reconciliation.
We regularly see examples of personal greed and exploitation. But we also see examples of generosity and sharing.
The COVID pandemic revealed a “harsh reality” of life around the world, creating great suffering. But it has also been a time when nations, communities and neighborhoods have learned how to cooperate in new and profound ways.
This spring I participated in a writing seminar on Zoom. One class member was an African American woman, recently retired as a Navy chaplain. At one point in a discussion, she said she has a quote from the writer bel hooks at the top of her computer screen: “How do we hold people accountable for wrongdoing and yet at the same time remain in touch with their humanity enough to believe in their capacity to be transformed?” She said this helps her persevere.
The harsh reality of racism continues to create seen and unseen suffering every day. But the dream of freedom and justice based on the inherent dignity of all human beings is alive. Living in the “Tragic Gap,” we can face the realities while holding on to the dream. John Lewis never gave up. Barack and Michelle Obama are not giving up. The many women and men of color elected to office are not giving up.
The dream lives and is worth celebrating.
[i] Hicks, pg. 11
[ii] Pg. .11
[iii] Pg. 11
[iv] Pg. 119