People don’t talk about America the way I do very much anymore. The smart pessimists call me naïve. They tell me I ignore the truths about our past. Or that I’m the outcome of a constructed class system. The former isn’t true. The latter is truer. But neither are my source for optimism.
I’ve been all over this planet. I’ve seen genocide up close and personal. I’ve seen failed governments and societal ruin. I’ve walked the banks of the Euphrates through the modern wreckage of the cradle of civilization. And I’ve watched the faint purple tint on the horizon as the sun came up over the Rift Valley where hundreds of thousands of years ago the ancestors of all of us asked “why?” for the first time. Some optimism comes from ignorance. But there’s another kind that comes from experience; experience that tells us that hope is the only chance we have. It’s an obligation. And once you realize it, you’ve got no choice.
The dawn, after all, was ours before we knew it.
The first hundred years of America were such a violent collision that it’s amazing that we survived it at all. If you were born in Texas 1820 you would have been born a Spaniard. Your country would have won its independence by your first birthday. And by the time you turned 16, you would have won independence from Mexico. And by your 25th birthday you would have been an American. By the time you were 40 you would have been a Confederate. And by the time you were my age you’d be an American again. All while the people around you were killing Native Americans to take their land and getting killed by them for taking it.
We had states run by mining companies. A railroad was built to nowhere yet. We had slave states and free states and territories that had slaves and slave traders that stole free people of color and sold them into the cruelest slave masters of the deep south where their life expectancy was so short, they were treated as durable goods. You could be free and sentenced to slavery. We passed laws that made it illegal to not return someone to slavery once they left it even if you lived in a state with no slavery. Children were sold out from other mothers. They were “broken” like horses. Until we had to fight a war, the worst our country has ever seen, between states, between Americans, to end it. And it didn’t really end it.
But we weren’t broken. We were just unfinished.
We’re credence nationalists in our best days. Not restrictive. We believe in the principles we were built on. Not the blood and soil of membership. We are of equality of opportunity. Liberty. And government for the people by the people. And we look to those times when we’ve failed, the whole generations that we failed, as reason to keep fighting. Not reason to quit. Because when we give our brothers and sisters just the slightest room to breathe, they break the bounds of gravity, split the atom, walk on the moon and build the most prosperous and capable nation the world has ever seen. The beauty that bleeds out of the seams of oppression and failure is what makes us who we are. The past is our feedback loop. Without the data the machine cannot improve.
Because it’s not just pride we inherit. Being American means carrying the mess with us. It’s the past we step into. And it’s the promise to repair it.
Amanda Gorman, who might be 22 or 23, read a poem on the steps of the Capitol where Lincoln stood on his inauguration day. She wandered into the consciousness of America aflame and unafraid. She picked the words out of the air that had always been there. And she told them back to us in a way so beautiful that we couldn’t look away. It was optimism. Not the naïve optimism of ignorance. The optimism of truth; the unbreakable optimism we all cling to like Douglas’ storm-tossed mariner to a spar at midnight. This is what brings fire, not just the light. Not just the gentle shower but the storm the whirlwind and the earthquake.
This is the hill we climb; the hill worth climbing. This is the obligation of hope.
America is full of good people doing good things. And we’re not done yet.