Every human culture has told stories about itself. We all know how powerful these origin stories become; they hold the power of shared myth, of truths so unyielding they require gods, and magic and mystery to convey the eternal truths we struggle to convey.
Early American colonists considered themselves a divinely established people set upon a virgin continent, establishing with God’s divine blessing a kind of new Eden, within which the greatest of human civilizations would be established, no matter how imperfect the comparison.
These early narratives about American exceptionalism were part of the founding documents of the country, and repeated and renewed by the social media of the day: the preachers and poets, journalists and politicians, whose words shaped the hearts and minds of the populace. Borrowing from the rich language of Old Testament prophets and New Testament gospels, the shared identity of our country was repeatedly linked to well-known religious images of a lush garden, a shining lamp, a chosen people, a city set on a hill.
Like all powerful, enduring self-portraits, these foundational stories kept a great deal hidden. Not included were the diverse indigenous tribes who were already inhabitants of this land and considered enemies of this God-ordained new country. Nor the African peoples bought and sold up and down the coast beginning in 1619, whose labor was the engine of a southern economy, whose families, bodies and minds were considered private property.
As the nation fought, bargained and civil warred its way into its current 50 state and multiple territories footprint, the origin myths were and are continuously repeated. We teach our children how special and blessed we are; we weave parts of the Christian faith into the history of our country and call ourselves God’s own.
It has come time for the renewal of stories. Long before an invisible virus began circulating around the world 12 months ago and brought death and fear to the United States, Black men have been treated as a threat to social safety. As we were beginning to understand the power of this novel coronavirus this spring, a Minneapolis police officer knelt on the neck of a distressed black man, slowly suffocating him, as his neighbors screamed for his life. New waves of protests erupted in every corner of the globe, demanding again a revisiting of our policing of black and brown citizens. All the while the pandemic still rages, schools close, businesses are lost, and hundreds of thousands die.
Americans have never fully rejected segregation by race. In the last decade or so, stoked by the racist rhetoric of internet conspiracy theories, fringe political groups, and elected politicians, a growing part of our population now openly embraces white supremacy. Woven into this movement are beliefs about absolute gun ownership, science denial, distrust of journalism, college educators and media, and hatred for the politics of compromise. They lift up, elect and follow crass, egotistical political outsiders who convince them that they can — with the aid of armed underground militias, waving Jesus flags and erecting noosed scaffolds — wrestle the government back to its original white glory. Just what happened at our nation’s Capitol on Jan. 6.
It is past time for the renewal of stories, for recommitting to our stated values of equality of all, endowed with unalienable rights. To begin to publicly revisit our origin stories and include people of all colors, abilities and religions within the fabric of the American people. To reject the sin of bigotry and those whose violence would reinstate our broken past.
While you and I are just 1 in over 300 million voices, the way we live our lives, the choices we make, how we raise our families, are threads in the national fabric. I believe in a democracy that is big enough to repair itself. Let’s struggle for the healing of our nation.