by Ralph Brauer | 1/19/2009 06:13:00 PM
There may be no more perplexing nation than our own, but then maybe everyone thinks that about their home country. America can inspire and infuriate. It can move you to tears and fits of anger and then, when you least expect it, it can produce a moment that makes shivers run up and down your spine.
Even the sight of our flag can induce contrary emotions. Some people have wanted to burn it or fly it upside down. Others have turned it into a tacky trinket, a public relations figleaf or an advertising gimmick whose disrespect may be as despicable as spitting on the flag. Perhaps it is fitting our national anthem should be about the flag and that that very flag should be enshrined in a special case at the Museum of American History as if it were the holiest of icons.
Perhaps nothing inspires these contradictory emotions more than American history itself. As schoolchildren we are taught about our past as if it were a long march of names and dates always moving forward with a Biblical sense of purpose. But even before we graduate from high school we know there is more to it than that causing some of us to react like that storied kid who asked of a worshiped athlete who suddenly became enveloped in scandal, "Say it ain't so, Joe."
In recent years we cannot even agree on what should be in those history schoolbooks so a somewhat dutiful formula has set in that dictates various groups each receive their allotted pages. The formula is under constant readjustment as events cause yet another calibration which brings a formerly forgotten figure back from obscurity to be placed on the pedestal from which it fell. Sometimes the pieces are too shattered, too scattered for even horses and men to put them together again.
In yet another American irony many of those shattered pieces involve people who never even made it on to the pedestal. We will never really know even a tiny fragment about slavery from the perspective of the enslaved. Literally millions of stolen sacred Native American objects lie in obscure museum drawers severed from their context and traditions, treated by their keepers as curiosities or artifacts while those for whom they have the most meaning regard them as living not corpses to be dissected. For yet others who may have carefully written their inner thoughts during moments stolen from oppressive drudgery that weighed them down like the uncomfortable garments they were forced to wear, their past was often discarded as if it were little more than another piece of garbage which had the potential to make people feel uncomfortable.
To be a first generation American in such a nation only heightens all the contradictions precisely because your family came not because this country represented a city on a hill, but both more and less than that. My grandparents didn't even stay and my father always retained an accent my friends could detect but I could not.
To be the child of an immigrant--especially a political one--is to find yourself personally subjected to the best and worst of this country in ways only others in your position can truly understand. Your past is neither here nor there, but converges like two torrents into rapids that threaten to upset your equilibrium. But those torrents also pulse with creative energy that you find difficult to hold back even when you wish it would go away. In that creative energy is also a unique perspective for we know we would not be alive today were it not for America.
That is why for several decades now I have experienced considerable frustration at people, some of them friends, who have allowed their frustrations to occasionally slide into cynicism that becomes expressed as contempt for the American people. Yet to lose faith in the American people is to lose faith in our nation, for at the heart of this singular democratic experiment lies an extraordinary gamble where even all the machinations of the nation's founders could not cut the odds.
They feared what James Madison in one of the most extraordinary political documents ever written--Federalist #10--called the issue of faction. Yet in the end despite all the safeguards they put in place, safeguards any fifth-grader can recite, it is the people on which they wagered their lives, fortunes and sacred honor.
Perhaps that is why America senses how important tomorrow has become. First of all, it is testimony to the talents of one man, Barack Obama, who made that bet, but did so in a truly singular fashion against some pretty long odds. When I think of Obama and the moment he will place his hand on the Bible to become our first African American President, I can't help but think of buses.
It was a woman on a bus who symbolized the beginning of the path that pointed to this moment. She precipitated a bus boycott that brought forth a man whose holiday we celebrate today to the greatness that lay within him waiting to be awakened. It was buses that carried a delegation of Mississippi Freedom Democrats to Atlantic City in 1964 to remind America of what it stood for even as some sitting uncomfortably in their seats were not sure they would make it home alive.
It was from a bus that one of them, Fannie Lou Hamer, was pulled, placed in jail and beaten to near death. It was buses that carried the idealists of Freedom Summer and those participants of the march that ended in Lincoln's granite shadow where the man whose crusade had started with that bus boycott inspired this nation to its very soul.
Now again people are taking to the buses, only this time not in anger or protest but in celebration. I saw a picture of a woman climbing the steps to one of those buses and in her face was written the larger script of someone who had climbed on to one of those buses almost four score and seven years ago.
Buses are converging on Washington in a way they never have in America before for such an event. This is different than Coxey's Army or the Bonus March or any of dozens of other marches, for it is an expression of faith and hope. America has again confounded us. People like that woman perhaps understand perhaps best of all. The look on her face said that this is a moment to be there, to bear witness, to for once just be.
When those buses pull away from Washington in a few days carrying their loads of sated travelers they will again be enveloped in the fog that is America. No one can say where the visions they bear with them will travel, but all of us in America who are not on those buses should this time pledge to make sure they reach their destinations safely.