Over the past year, the Newport Historical Society has held a series of Civic Conversations on what it means to be an American today. We could have a hell of a talk this week, after armed insurrectionists stormed and breached the US Capitol during a normally routine certification of a presidential election. Some of those individuals invoked their sense of the spirit of 1776, and others seemed to think they were refighting the Civil War.
The commentary has focused, at least in part, on a duality of interpretations of this historic event. We are hearing about the unprecedented nature of the attack, and how it does not represent America, the land of decency, systems of justice, and stately transitions of power. On the flip side, it has been pointed out that outpourings of Civil War resentments, race and caste hostility, conspiracy theories, and a longing for autocracy have in fact been part of our national fabric all along. “This is not us” is contrasted with “this is exactly us.”
The narrative of American exceptionalism – its role as an aspirational place – has been part of our national character since the arrival of the first European colonists, whose arrival also initiated the trail of violence, white supremacy and triumphalist myth-making that is likewise our heritage. We have wrestled with this idea often in our conversations at NHS, with some of us unwilling to give up the idea that America represents something unusual and admirable, and others claiming that this idea is based on a narrative of justice and decency that we have simply never lived up to. I am going to say, emphatically, that both of these things are true. I say this because I believe that the reckoning that we must make with our actual history – what America has been, and done, over the last 400 years – is not incompatible with understanding that we have all the elements in place to be an exceptional place, a nation we can be proud to live in. And that, in fact, the ability to wrestle with both ideas is essential to understanding ourselves today, and to getting the country on a better track.
I will argue that our exceptionalism does not lie in being good, or decent, because we are obviously no more or less so than anyone. It does not lie in having created a democratic system of government that works flawlessly, because well, see this week. It lies, in my opinion, in exactly the thing that is today making many Americans uncomfortable. It lies in the diversity of our population. In our now wavering willingness to take in the world’s tired and poor and make them citizens. In our lack of homogeneity, and our fractured understanding that when we face our differences, or find them irrelevant, we find a way forward. This is our exceptionalism, the source of our greatness in thought, in innovation, in prosperity, and in freedom, despite the obvious, ugly gap at the center that 400 years of hypocrisy about race provides. We should be addressing that gap with urgent enthusiasm, and nurturing the sources of our strength, and not continuing to take actions that support the opposite.
So, in saying all this, I have some hope that this dire moment leads us to a better understanding of ourselves, and helps us to redefine who we are along the lines of our best selves, with recognition of where our worst impulses can lead. When I talk about hope and change, as I have done in our NHS Civic Conversations, I do so from the position that hope is nothing if it does not help us define our next steps. Let’s get to work.
Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman’s Inaugural Poem, “The Hill We Climb”
When day comes, we ask ourselves, where can we find light in this never-ending shade?
The loss we carry. A sea we must wade.
We braved the belly of the beast.
We’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace, and the norms and notions of what “just” is isn’t always justice.
And yet the dawn is ours before we knew it.
Somehow we do it.
Somehow we weathered and witnessed a nation that isn’t broken, but simply unfinished.
We, the successors of a country and a time where a skinny Black girl descended from slaves and raised by a single mother can dream of becoming president, only to find herself reciting for one.
And, yes, we are far from polished, far from pristine, but that doesn’t mean we are striving to form a union that is perfect.
We are striving to forge our union with purpose.
To compose a country committed to all cultures, colors, characters and conditions of man.
And so we lift our gaze, not to what stands between us, but what stands before us.
We close the divide because we know to put our future first, we must first put our differences aside.
We lay down our arms so we can reach out our arms to one another.
We seek harm to none and harmony for all.
Let the globe, if nothing else, say this is true.
That even as we grieved, we grew.
That even as we hurt, we hoped.
That even as we tired, we tried.
That we’ll forever be tied together, victorious.
Not because we will never again know defeat, but because we will never again sow division.
Scripture tells us to envision that everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid.
If we’re to live up to our own time, then victory won’t lie in the blade, but in all the bridges we’ve made.
That is the promise to glade, the hill we climb, if only we dare.
It’s because being American is more than a pride we inherit.
It’s the past we step into and how we repair it.
We’ve seen a force that would shatter our nation, rather than share it.
Would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy.
And this effort very nearly succeeded.
But while democracy can be periodically delayed, it can never be permanently defeated.
In this truth, in this faith we trust, for while we have our eyes on the future, history has its eyes on us.
This is the era of just redemption.
We feared at its inception.
We did not feel prepared to be the heirs of such a terrifying hour.
But within it we found the power to author a new chapter, to offer hope and laughter to ourselves.
So, while once we asked, how could we possibly prevail over catastrophe, now we assert, how could catastrophe possibly prevail over us?
We will not march back to what was, but move to what shall be: a country that is bruised but whole, benevolent but bold, fierce and free.
We will not be turned around or interrupted by intimidation because we know our inaction and inertia will be the inheritance of the next generation, become the future.
Our blunders become their burdens.
But one thing is certain.
If we merge mercy with might, and might with right, then love becomes our legacy and change our children’s birthright.
So let us leave behind a country better than the one we were left.
Every breath from my bronze-pounded chest, we will raise this wounded world into a wondrous one.
We will rise from the golden hills of the West.
We will rise from the windswept Northeast where our forefathers first realized revolution.
We will rise from the lake-rimmed cities of the Midwestern states.
We will rise from the sun-baked South.
We will rebuild, reconcile, and recover.
And every known nook of our nation and every corner called our country, our people diverse and beautiful, will emerge battered and beautiful.
When day comes, we step out of the shade of flame and unafraid.
The new dawn balloons as we free it.
For there is always light, if only we’re brave enough to see it.
If only we’re brave enough to be it.