Jan  2018 09
Toward a More Truthful Story

I’ve had the privilege of being a member of a community advisory council for the superintendent of Tulsa Public Schools. In that capacity, I and the council members researched the names of persons after whom each school was named.

It has been interesting, eye-opening, and disturbing research. Interesting and eye-opening because some of the honorees are from aspects of Oklahoma history not previously known to me. Disturbing because of how many honored persons owned another human being, or supported that practice, or thought less of immigrants, women, and Native Americans than they did of white people.

So many persons betrayed or simply did not represent American values of life, the pursuit of happiness, freedom, equal opportunity, and equal treatment under the law.

One of the schools is named for Christopher Columbus. When I re-read accounts of his life and work, I was reminded of the huge gap between the ditty I was taught as a child and the reality of Columbus and what he represents to all indigenous peoples in the Americas.

If you are of a certain age, you may remember that Columbus “sailed the ocean blue in 1492. He sailed and he sailed and he sailed and he sailed. He sailed for me and you.” Who is the “me and you” in that song? In reality, he did not sail for anyone today. He sailed to become wealthy, to bring wealth and honor to his patrons, and to impose Catholicism on anyone he encountered.

The ditty is false. It is but one of the false stories white America has told and taught. In the present, those false stories of white innocence are being assailed as perhaps never before. Good.

However, I would not follow those who claim America is only a lie. There are American values that are worth fighting and working for. They are not values to be preserved as if they are white sofas with plastic slipcovers from the 1960s. They are not values from when America was great. They are values that might really make America great.

One of those values is truth-telling, as in telling ourselves the truth about ourselves. America needs a more truthful story that can be broadly recognized as true, by the diversity of citizens and guests within US borders. For example, there is plenty of evidence for this part of the story:

White supremacy, patriarchy, and greed have been powerful systems and values in the history of the United States of America. The birth of the USA included a violent clash of cultures and ethnicities, which resulted in the decimation of and ongoing damage to indigenous peoples.

In addition, the nation’s wealth was built significantly on the slave trade, until an awful Civil War ended slavery while not ending the structures or values of white supremacy, and then on the backs of cheap and often exploited immigrant labor. The ill-effects of those values and structures remain evident in Native Americans and African-Americans populations. For all of American history thus far, men have dominated public life. Capitalism is the reigning economic system, which has generated an enormous amount of wealth. That wealth today is highly concentrated among a small percentage of the population.

Now, if that were the whole story, then what’s the point of continuing the American experiment, except among the persons who benefit from it? But there are other potential elements to the story. One could also provide evidence for each of these, but as “the better angels of our natures,” these values articulate the “could be great” elements of US life:

The United States is founded upon an idea: that there can be a “we the people” who are free enough, equal enough, educated enough, moral and ethical enough, compassionate enough to form a republic, build an excellent standard of living, and be a force for good in the world. The US can be a place of equal treatment under the law, where the government and society work to ensure that every individual has an equitable opportunity to thrive. The US can be a place where hard work and sound character are valued.

The US can be a place where wrongs are confessed, changes are made, and reparations help the nation move forward from dark moments in the past. The US can be a place that celebrates both its multicultural mosaic and practicing the Golden Rule in how persons of different races, ethnicities, genders, gender identities, sexualities, and religions treat each other. The US can be a place where religions contribute to a more just and compassionate society, as well as model and teach the values of speaking truthfully, with kindness, practicing forgiveness, and upholding the values of restorative justice and redemption.


Browse more posts by: Gary Peluso-Verdend, Phillips Faculty
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