Our Shared American Story

History is revealed to us through facts — not feelings.
07/28/2016 05:05 pm ET Updated Jul 31, 2016
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I find it odd that anyone would object to or dispute Michele Obama’s reference, in her eloquent address to the DNC this week, that the White House was built with slave labor.

Any well-read student of American history would expect slave labor to have been utilized for the construction of the White House. It was constructed in the 1790’s; that’s what they did back then. Our forefathers used slave labor for everything — especially in the Virginia area.

There are public records that describe payments to slave owners for Whitehouse construction services. Abigail Adams wrote about the construction in some detail. These are facts. Facts are available from a variety of sources. Look it up.

Owning up to our imperfections and shortcomings doesn’t mean we can’t be patriotic or proud of who we are.

In the spring of 1945, U.S. soldiers, having fought their way across Europe, liberated prisoners from Nazi death camps. They were stunned and horrified by the condition of Jewish prisoners and the other human beings held in such brutal captivity. The soldiers forced German townspeople who lived close by the camps to help with the cleanup — burying bodies, cleaning up debris — so they would be forced to acknowledge the horror they had tacitly allowed to take place during the Nazi regime.

I wonder how those U.S. soldiers would feel today if they came back and found Germans denying the horror of the Holocaust and refusing to apply some basic political correctness and decency, when they spoke of the unspeakable treatment of the Jews under Hitler’s Germany. How do you feel they would react?

History is revealed to us through facts — not feelings. We’d all like to feel proud of our shared American heritage, but the fact is it’s not all pretty and patriotic. We’re not that different from Germany or any other nation when you really study our history. 

America is a contradiction; it can be the light of the world while simultaneously casting an imperial shadow over entire continents.

I was an American Studies major in college and what I learned was that the real America story is an amalgam of demographic, economic, religious and technological trends and influences. In many ways it remains an unfolding story. We’re all the result of immigration, whether we’re of Puritan ancestry or Mexican parents. And a part of our national legacy is rooted in slavery and genocide. It just is.

Our most bloody war was fought to resolve the issue of slavery. The Civil War wasn’t fought about cotton or lifestyle or even state’s rights. It was fought over slavery. If you take away the institution of slavery, you take away the war. Read about it. Understand it. Appreciate those who died to defend their ideals — right or wrong. You can’t truly comprehend the genius of Robert E. Lee without understanding the pomposity of George McClellan or the tenacity of U.S. Grant. Each one contributed to our great story.

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The treatment of native American people over the centuries has been nothing short of genocide. This is just a sad fact of American life. When you slaughter entire communities of people and relocate the survivors into contained areas where their populations wither and die, that is genocide. It’s a part of our collective legacy.

There’s a lot of wonderful things about America — our vibrant economy, our beautiful landscapes, our national park system, our incredible work ethic, our ethnic melting pot, how we kicked ass in World War II, and most of all — our imperfect and adaptable democracy.

Loving America means acknowledging and learning from its mistakes and forging ahead in the spirit of compromise.

Owning up to our imperfections and shortcomings doesn’t mean we can’t be patriotic or proud of who we are. America is a story of ideas and compromise. It is the exploration, and the oh-so-gradual flowering of concepts like freedom, liberty and human rights for all Americans.

America is a contradiction; it can be the light of the world while simultaneously casting an imperial shadow over entire continents. Being American means respecting the values and processes of cultures outside of our comfort zone; provided they are respectful of their citizens and are peaceful among nations. Part of being an American is the process of learning to respect others, be they Cherokee or Sunnis; Black or Blue; Gay or Born Again.

Acknowledging how slaves contributed to our national story is entirely appropriate, in the same way the Bible refers to Hebrew slaves in Egypt. But in our modern instance, we’re close enough in time to explore the actual facts.

Loving America means acknowledging and learning from its mistakes and forging ahead in the spirit of compromise. It also means learning how to look for facts, not opinions, that support what our national history is all about. That requires work on your part, but it’s well worth the effort if you sincerely love your country.

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