In elementary school, my teachers taught extensively and candidly on the tragedy and evils of slavery. We learned how European settlers committed genocide against Native American tribes. History was never glossed over.
My education also cultivated in me a delight for many cultures. We had guest speakers who had immigrated from countries all over the world. We got to share their food, their history, and stories told in their languages. Our school was diverse, and our teachers made room for everyone to have representation. Every student got to learn–and share–his or her story. Diversity wasn’t as much of a buzzword back then, wasn’t a politicized ideal to be sought after.
It was simpler: we celebrated each other. Because we liked to learn new things. Because we liked to imagine. Because we hadn’t been taught to fear.
I learned about my history, too. My family’s roots as East Texas cotton farmers–and further back, as settlers heading west–were spoken of with great dignity. I could picture the prairie and forest cabins; kids washing up in creeks after using the outhouse; siblings who didn’t survive to adulthood; the warmth and strength of family; the fear of Indians; the stereotyping of black people; the sense that the foreign felt curious, strange, silly, or disquieting.
I felt the threads of those stories winding through my blood: the perseverance and the pride; the simplicity and the healthful freedom of fresh air and green woods; perhaps most importantly, the chasm inside my ancestors, born of their quest to write a new story on foreign lands. It was a chasm between divergent narratives and the longing to reconcile them.
The stories they wrote with their lives, and later their memoirs, were given dignity, not shame, when I first learned them. Those settlers created meaning out of the chaos of the wilderness (as we all must). Oftentimes they steered their wagons adrift of human decency. And they taught their children to sew, hunt, fish, and farm, and to value family over everything else. Some of them grew up to be the good guys in Western movies and period dramas.
There is evil in culture, and right beside it, there is good, because that’s what humanity is: good and evil. When I was young, we held that knowledge with hope that the good would win out, and we examined the whole complex with care. We broke stories apart and put them back together–again and again–sifting out the good from the evil; the good from the evil.
It’s the curse we chose: the knowledge of good and evil. The best thing we can do is to understand that curse.
We don’t always see. Pride in our heritage and the comfort of community blind us to how language isolates and ostracizes. Neglect keeps us choosing comfort over a willingness to imagine fully what the person next to us has lived. These things are true of us all.
What are the dangers of removing from our eyes the truth that we are all beautiful and flawed? The curse winds back generations into the unchangeable past. Where we have failed, we cannot undo it. We cannot avenge it. We can only understand it truthfully.
Robert E. Lee was a man. Laura Ingalls Wilder was a woman. Washington; Jefferson; Lincoln; Martin Luther King–all people, all flawed, all broken. All major contributors to the story of our past–a story woven with threads of good and evil. All people worthy of respect and criticism. Do we realize that we’re all as good and bad as each of them?
We don’t tear down people’s contributions to the betterment of life and education for the sake of criticizing what they got wrong.
We criticize what they got wrong.
Break it apart. Put it back together. Again. Again. Again. Know the people of history. Celebrate their good. Denounce their evil.
It’s too late to undo the curse. You have to work inside it, at least until it’s complete.
We denounce ideas, not people. We tell people the truth; we don’t attack them ad hominem.
Be passionate. Be right. But above all, be gracious, kind, and humble. You’re broken, too. So let your life write a truer kind of story.