Perhaps to say the obvious, it is difficult to correct the mistakes of the past and point out new directions for the future without actually grappling with this history and processing and acknowledging the results of past behaviors so that one can see and evaluate other options, that evolve.
This is Therapy 101. It is not just a quasi-religious ritual of self-chastening for one’s sins. Indeed, such confessions offer only temporary absolution and allow one to sinfully go on until the next confession. Rather, this confrontation, this process is more pragmatic and aims to deal with the harmfulness and ineffectiveness of these behaviors for oneself and others, so that one can create a healthier life and apply practices that serve oneself and others more optimally.
As a nation, by and large we have had a rather difficult time grappling with the myriad and savage inhumanities on which the nation was founded and which arguably fueled its development.
As you may recall, in 1998, in front of a crowd in Uganda, President Bill Clinton made a muted apology for the US “shameful legacy” in Africa, including its role in the slave trade and support for tough dictatorships. However, he had previously considered and declined to apologize to African Americans for slavery as part of the proposed campaign to promote racial reconciliation.
America, especially white America, acts like a stubborn kid with arms folded and declares, “I’m not sorry.”
The House passed a resolution apologizing for slavery in 2008, followed by the Senate in 2009, but a joint resolution was never passed.
Last summer, of course, Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton proposed laws that would withhold federal funding for schools that used the New York Times’ controversial 1619 project in any way in their curriculum. This Pulitzer Prize-winning series in the New York Times, of course, examined United States history through the lens of slavery, provided that reports of slavery were not comprehensively, rounded, and fully incorporated into reports of slavery, especially in US history their earliest stages.
And of course, following the police murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, Donald Trump railed against the removal of Confederate monuments celebrating a violent racist past.
Unless we let go of this past and hold on to historical practices that encourage violence and death instead of affirming and promoting life, we cannot create a healthier and more humane future, a more perfect union.
President-elect Joe Biden has praised his cabinet as one of the “first” and claims that when all positions are filled, his cabinet will be the most representative of all cabinets in American history. We will have more people of color than any cabinet ever. We will have more women than any cabinet ever. We’ll have a cabinet with barrier breakers. A cabinet of the first. “
To be representative is definitely a step forward. In and of itself, however, it is not a guarantee. Just think of the actions of the Minister of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson, an African American. He actually instituted policies that undermined previous fair housing laws and thwarted policies that encouraged desegregation.
No, the identity forged through history does not necessarily dictate one’s politics.
But Biden’s team seems different. They seem to realize that the history of discrimination, violence and exploitation in the nation has not only been inhuman, but has prevented us all from achieving not only justice, but our full potential to create a healthy and prosperous society and economy that serves everyone.
Take Congressman Deb Haaland, who was the first Native American woman to be nominated as home secretary. Speaking at the Democratic Convention last summer, she was not afraid to speak directly and neutrally about the history of the nation in order to underscore our obstacles and envision a real path to overcoming them. She introduced herself as a Pueblo Indian talking about indigenous land and gave us a broader look at the history. She let us know, “This land’s promise predates our constitution. Over 500 years ago, thousands of Native American tribes were thriving democratic societies with rich cultures, traditions, and communities that had sustained them over millennia in countries they loved and respected. My people, the Pueblo Indians, immigrated to the Rio Grande Valley in the late 12th century to escape droughts. We were taken to the great river and its tributaries, where we started an agricultural tradition that continues to this day. “
The nation can draw much from these traditions in order to survive the devastation and find new ways of life: “My people have survived centuries of slavery, genocide and brutal assimilation policies. But in our past tribal nations have fought for this country and helped build it. “
I can’t really remember how slavery and genocide were brought up at a major U.S. political congress, which is how we grapple with our history while also proclaiming the hope rooted in the history of the survival and ingenuity of the most brutal in that history is. “I am a symbol of our resilience as the embodiment of America’s progress as a nation,” she told us. “I know that we cannot take our democracy for granted, especially now that people are dying and our land is being abused.” because our constitution is under attack. “
The survivors’ perspectives illustrate the obstacles we face and the real possibility of overcoming them.
Pete Buttigieg, the first openly gay man to be nominated for Secretary of Transportation, recalled a 17-year-old watching a gay man, Bill Clinton, who was nominated for a Senate-rejected ambassadorial position because of his sexuality.
The empirical knowledge contained in these perspectives offers a privileged insight into what is holding us back as a nation. While these perspectives may reside in an identity and a particular historical experience, the politics that derive from them serve us all.
For example, debates on reparations centering on African Americans also draw attention to the larger story of labor exploitation of all peoples, especially the working class, in US history, calling on us to make reparations and find new ways to to organize work in them non-exploitative ways.
While the skirmishes at Standing Rock over the Keystone Pipeline may have centered on Native American struggles for their land rights, the struggle has also been to protect the destruction of our environment, the ecological foundation of all of our lives.
Haaland and Buttigieg, just two examples from Biden’s cabinet decisions, are not necessarily looking for excuses; When they speak, they diagnose what is holding us back so that we can move beyond this past and ongoing repression to help all Americans live full lives and create an optimal society and economy.
Tim Libretti is a professor of American literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A longtime progressive voice, he has published numerous academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, and the National Federation of Press Women and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association.