We are the stories that we tell. And those stories are selective.
We cannot recall every event. And we cannot recall every detail of every event or the telling would become a replica of the event itself, taking the same amount of time as the original. In other words, if the baseball game took three-and-a-half hours to play, the retelling of it as a story would also take three-and-a-half hours.
So said Jorge Luis Borges in his story “Funes the Memorius.” (In: Labyrinths) Funes was a man of perfect memory such that it took him twenty-four hours to completely recount a twenty-four hour period.
A First American Story
Our “American story” also is selective . . . and evolving.
The earliest version that I remember goes something like this: this country was founded by Pilgrims fleeing religious persecution in Europe. They landed on the shores of this land, befriended the Indians, bought land from them and settled. Shared a Thanksgiving meal.
Farming was done, tobacco was raised and colonies were formed. Domination by the English crown was unfair and an upstart army led by George Washington narrowly managed to defeat the British and chase them out. Freedom was won.
The country then was built by great men of brilliance – Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison and Monroe – on principles and ideals borrowed from the French Revolution: Liberte – freedom; Egalite – equality; Fraternite – brotherhood.
A Second American Story
But, in our lifetime, we have learned to revise that story. The Pilgrims were not super-heroes; along with their achievements they also were white European men who displaced the people native to this land, stole their land more often than not and infected them with European diseases against which they had no natural defenses – analogous to the way in which the bow and arrow and the tomahawk were no match for guns. Often, having successfully fled the religious persecutions of Europe, they turned around and persecuted other religions themselves.
We no longer skip over the part of the original Constitution known as the “3/5ths compromise” whereby only three of every five slaves were counted for the purpose of representation. And, of course, only wealthy white men could vote, if not in principle then in fact – not poor men, not women and, of course, not blacks.
Farming – the tobacco, cotton and sugar economies – were the product of slave labor, primarily people stolen from Africa and bought and sold as commodities. Slaves were mistreated, abused, tortured, raped, murdered.
Black Americans were victims of a tragedy, a travesty against them and against the founding principles of the nation. Sure, there were “success stories” here and there: Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Dubois, George Washington Carver, Thurgood Marshall, Barack Obama. But Black Americans were not to be known for those successes; at best, they would be known as terrible victims of a horrible crime.
A Third American Story
A new story is emerging – at least it appears new to me and, I am guessing, to many of you.
As I made reference to in my Yom Kippur sermon, the power, wealth and success of the United States is, literally, unimaginable without the work and contributions that Black Americans have made. Much of that because of their being enslaved; all of that despite their being enslaved.
The building of an economy based first on tobacco, then on cotton and then on sugar cane would not have happened otherwise; there would not have been enough labor available. And if it were left to free men, who would have chosen to do the backbreaking work under the hot sun in the fields of the South? The Industrial Revolution, at least here in America, was built on that slave economy. Great wealth was harvested from it.
More and more emerges regularly about the vast number of “white” and “black” Americans who are descendants of white slave owners and the black women they raped. The rape of Sally Hemmings by Thomas Jefferson, and the children and descendants that it produced, is not an isolated incident.
Beyond this, Black Americans have made immeasurable contributions to the arts, the sciences, even to the American idea of freedom itself.
The American nation, in all of its facets, is indebted to the contributions of Black Americans as much as it is to those white. They are not just victims upon whom white America has acted; they have been actors as well, protagonists in a drama hardly yet understood.
A Story Both Beautiful and Ugly
Those European white men did create something unique and spectacular. A society based on freedom, democracy, protection of private property, individual rights and more is still the exception in the world, not the rule.
And, yet, this country was – and remains – deeply flawed. As Martin Luther King, Jr. reminded us, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were promissory notes, whose full value we have yet to redeem.
As we tell the story of the American experiment, let’s remember how selective we have been and the ways in which that selectivity ignores some, overvalues others, and is as much about who we want to be today and going forward as it is about the past.