This is the beginning. Always we start with hopes for a better year than the last. That is natural even in the face of frequently disappointing reality. In 2013 we will, as our ancestors have done in previous generations, work harder to view the glass as half full rather than half empty. It is, in fact, easy to do that when history is part of our assessment of the present.
What many across this nation will observe this year is the 150th year anniversary of The Emancipation Proclamation. There also is the 50th year anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington. All these observances are benchmarks that serve to reinforce concerns related to equality, liberty, freedom, justice, and the pursuit of happiness for people in the United States of America. A popular film now being considered for “Best Film” of 2012 is Spielberg’s Lincoln. While only portraying a sliver of history (1861-1865) this movie represents an accurate representation of the ambivalence that surrounded the issue then and continues today when addressing race in this nation. In her book, Lincoln: Team of Rivals, Doris Kearns Goodwin has provided a Lincoln quote that descendants of those who made the Middle Passage can relate when he speaks of the Declaration of Independence as a measure of the nation’s ideals:
“…they [the founding fathers] did not mean to assert the obvious untruth, that all were enjoying that equality…. They meant to set up a standard maxim for free society, which should be familiar to all, and revered by all; constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence, and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people of all colors everywhere.”
If we view history as a progression then these major benchmarks including The Emancipation Proclamation, the 13th and 14th Amendments, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the March on Washington are to be praised, still knowing that those who pushed for them understood that they never were the end, the final accomplishment in a constant struggle to maintain and gain ground. Not a one of us can rest on our laurels because there is always something more to be done, some other challenge to tackle.
Let’s take as a prime example the inspiring re-election of Barrack Hussein Obama to his second term as President. Many of us heard different things during his most recent inaugural address. It was plain that some professional pundits were stuck in the past when they labeled the President’s message a “civil rights speech.” People hear what they choose to hear, but to some associated with this project, it was a speech of inclusion, a speech embracing all people. It was like Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man,” eloquent, inspiring, and down to earth all at once. For some of those pundits, the ringing phrases were missing. Listening for the “Ask not what your country can do for you…” they missed the “we the people,” and the challenge that there is work left undone so that all of us can reach our full potential. Some may even have heard in the President’s address and Merlie Evers’ remarks a pair of bookends around messages of hope. Mr. Obama advised US citizens to act and look down the road “four years, forty years, four hundred years.”
In this year through this project’s initiatives we affirm and tell a story of ancestors that gives them agency – the power to change hearts, mind, and reality. We cannot stress a separate history from others in this nation but envision it as part of the fabric. The concept of race was created in this nation for the purpose of obtaining wealth or success through exploiting others’ land and/or labor. Real or not, this is a bitter truth among many of us today.
The concerns of the present: equality, opportunity, education, political representation, gun control, immigration, fair treatment and respect for the law, to name just a few, have to be examined so that remedies can be proposed while keeping US history in mind. For example, guns are a part of American culture. They were devices used to protect, expand and nourish people from the beginning. They were used for aggression as well. When proposals for gun control are offered, this well-known history has to be considered. Banning guns most likely will never work, but strict control related to registration and harsh penalties for illegal use just might make sense. Spending for infrastructure, health care, social security, education, emergency disaster assistance, and environmental protection have also to be considered as investments in “we, the people.”
It will only get better when we establish our priorities and act. This beginning is another chance to create a more perfect Union, to get it right. We remain optimistic about the significant new year before us.