My cousin sent me an op-ed from her local newspaper. The author was writing about racism, how it is practiced all around us and has been since the founding of the country. But the turn of the editorial is that we are finally recognizing it and starting to push for the changes necessary to right these wrongs. My sense is the whole world is watching how we deal with what our history was and how we move forward in making our country and world a better place.
As a student of history, I don’t want to dwell on the past — I want to understand it and then apply what we have learned to improve. I have always known George Washington was a slave owner and that was not a good thing, but he was raised in an era when it was accepted. He was the first president of the United States. He turned down the offer to become king. One source tells us: “Despite having been an active slave holder for 56 years, George Washington struggled with the institution of slavery and spoke frequently of his desire to end the practice. At the end of his life, Washington made the decision to free all his slaves in his 1799 will - the only slave-holding Founding Father to do so.” Through our history we struggle with the balance of good and evil. The importance of recognizing slavery was wrong had to come first. The ensuing struggle to continue that move forward was nasty throughout the Jim Crow years following the Civil War. It still isn’t what it should be and some people are still trying to keep people of color from voting and pursuing economic equality. It is a slow process, but I hope with the addition of the words “systemic racism” into our vocabulary we are learning to examine ourselves, our own prejudices and right some wrongs a little faster.
I have been a “Trekkie” ever since I was a kid and I always appreciated the great diversity of the program from its very beginning, not only within the crew but the inclusion of people from other planets. When the Federation began to make peace overtures with the Klingons, it was a battle on both sides to get acceptance and peace. Another early episode found the crew interacting with a race at war — the color of the people was half white and half black — the struggle was over which side you were black on — the right side or the left side.
There is a saying, “The only constant in life is change.” And then we hear people say and I say it myself, “I don’t want things to change. I want them to stay just as they are.” Sorry, not going to happen. We can look back on our own lives with pride for the good things we have accomplished, but to finish the picture we also have to remember the “not-so-good” things we have done. History operates in the same way. When Galileo was attempting to convince people the earth revolved around the sun, when people believed the earth was the center of the solar system, that meant he was condemned by most of Europe including the Church which was the most powerful institution at that time. If the earth was only one planet among many, then suddenly we were not that important. We can teach about the cruelties of slavery but we can also teach about the improvements of working conditions and the ending of child labor laws. There is much we have to improve, but we also have much to be proud of.
We can move forward and we can teach history as it really was — the good and the bad. It is evident we are going to have to de-mythologize some of our history — “No, the pioneers did not open the West.” It was already populated and open and lived on by people with an important culture and history in this country. The greed of the railroads was a principal reason the buffalo were nearly exterminated to take away the food source of the Native peoples. Education for all of us is key to understanding. We may not like it, but it was the reality of that time and place. How do we now work toward changing the reality and moving forward with eyes open, with awareness to the sensibilities of all the people around us, and making a society where no one is excluded for any reason. We live with good and bad, how the balance tips is up to us.