O beautiful for spacious skies…
For amber waves of grain…
For purple mountain majesties…
Above the fruited plain…
Today we begin our July series, America the Beautiful – History Forgotten. In accordance with the patriotic theme of this weekend, where we celebrate the 4th of July, our nation’s founding, independence, patriotism, freedom, and all things America — I thought a series dedicated to celebrating America seemed relevant.
Living on a military base, as I do, there is not much that the folks over here love more than this holiday. It’s a chance for this “little America land” in Japan to remember and celebrate everything we love and miss about home. With flags waving, a base celebration, games, races, free food, beer, a band, face painting, go carts, bouncy houses, fireworks, and more… 4th of July here is a celebration experience. You can’t help but want to sing out Freedom, kiss cute babies, laugh at the screaming kids, drink a beer, and forget for a moment that in reality you are oceans away from home.
Well I should say that is USUALLY the case.
Except this year, it was pouring rain all day. So what did people do? Celebrate anyways. With umbrellas and rain coats, people showed up with their America game face on. My husband and I lasted about an hour, and then we opted for going back inside. That is until we heard the fireworks start up. Oh the irony. Fireworks in the rain. It was actually, strangely enough, one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. Standing there in the parking lot of our apartment tower, leaning against my husband in the rain, with the awed cries of children cheering in the background every time the next round of fireworks lit up the sky over the runway was a sight to behold. The clouds were heavy and low. The fireworks blended into a strange mixture of light, darkness, and shifting shadow. Sometimes they split the sky with light. Other times the dreary wet darkness hid them. It was beautiful.
As fun as 4th of July is, I think this military community loves it especially, because not only does it remind of us home — but also because it puts patriotic values such as sacrifice, integrity, honor, and service to God, Family, and Country on display for all to see. Values we all know well and hold close to heart .
But this isn’t the only thing beautiful for me about 4th of July and celebrating America.
You see, growing up I learned a very picturesque, naive, and biased view of American history. Fueled by the ever prevalent biases of European and American Judeo-Christian influences promoting a white-washed view of God, country, manifest destiny, and American exceptionalism, the history I was taught conveniently forgot America’s darker side. Growing up in the conservative, south where the Bible Belt of America runs deep, I learned early on to downplay the ravages of the civil war, slavery, prejudice, racism, segregation, and bigotry.
The civil war wasn’t about slavery, it was about state’s rights and small government.
Racism was a thing of the past.
These ideas were never exposed to me for the whitewashed truth they are, until college. Ironically I was by then in the deep heart of the south, in Little Rock, Arkansas. A college campus where present day race relations and tensions were all too familiar. A campus where I was for once the minority. A campus who’s own well-known Christian Campus Chrusade for Christ ministry informed me, after I visited the local chapter and asked why the group was so small that this was the group for student’s like me — and by that they meant white. A group of about maybe 10 students, compared to our “sister group” thriving with over 60 African American students. Given I was a history minor, I soon decided to sign up for a class on the American South. For a campus who struggled daily with the reality of racial tensions produced by both the city and state’s deeply divided history, I look back and realize the history department found a way to boldly dive right into it. Suddenly my eyes were opened, and the history lover in me could not learn enough. The civil rights movement, the post war south, “separate-but-not-equal,” — I was learning about my country and about my heritage and for the first time I felt ashamed. I felt broken. My America the Beautiful People — how was this truly possible that we could be such instruments of evil, oppression, and pain? The shame and guilt only felt all the more real, knowing slave-owning and old-white southern money ran deep in parts of my family’s history.
It’s not that I didn’t know about slavery growing up– I did. I just had been so clouded with rhetoric used to justify, to explain away, to hide its ugly horrors that I never had let myself truly hear the victim’s voices drowning underneath. Instead of hearing stories that gave agency to the victims in the midst of their oppression, I heard far more about the tensions between whites in the north and the south — who believed what, who promoted freedom, who didn’t, etc. Instead of hearing about how the Bible and Christianity was used to defend slavery and the harmful affects of this ugly reality of history and grappling with this sad truth in the Bible itself — I instead heard about Christians of the north who used Scripture to promote abolition, or about Christians in the south who treated their slaves kindly or more humanely because of being “Christians.” Watching the movie 12 Year’s a Slave recently, brought the gut-wrenching reality of this hypocrisy to a whole new light. Reminding me how Scripture was taken and torn apart, how Scripture was used to defend, to silence, to justify inaction, and yes to oppress; just as it was also used to decry such degrading treatment of beautiful, precious human lives.
History only seems to remind us of how again and again Scripture can be used to both wound and heal.
So as my studies of American history in college grew deeper and less censored, I began to see our country for all that it represents. Suddenly it wasn’t just slavery, racism, and the civil rights movement. It was the ever vicious cycle found in discriminating against anyone who wasn’t considered “American” enough, from immigrant group to immigrant group throughout the centuries. It was the sexism and limited treatment of women throughout our history. Instead of a glorified view of America the hero of world war II, I saw our darker sides in the darkness and suffering found in the dresden bombings, the atomic bombing of Japan, and the American Japanese concentration camps found throughout the west and the American south. Something again, I didn’t know had existed outside of California, and to my horror I found existed only a few hours away in southern Arkansas.
Perhaps it is the eternal optimist within me, but I am learning that true beauty can still be found even in the midst of our greatest failures. Not a complacent, naive, simplistic, carefully polished, or masked beauty — but instead a deeper beauty found in embracing the worst parts of our past to create a more beautiful future. I am finding that even with all its many, many faults, the beauty of America is that in it’s best moments it chooses to fight for freedom from oppression, it chooses to stand up for justice even when that entails a cost, it struggles to give a platform to the minority, it finds a way to give a voice to the voiceless, it shows us that despite great weakness we can together through love be strong.
So instead of shying away from the truth of our dark moments in history — I have found a love for America’s hidden beauty.
People are not beautiful just because of how they look on the inside — people are truly beautiful for the person that they are and who they become through adversity, trials, suffering, and loss. Our country’s beauty found in it’s flags waving, it’s well known historic triumphs, it’s lauded reputation of being the land of freedom and choice, and it’s plethora of American patriotism has both a time and a place — but it only gives a small glimpse into its true depths. American beauty is so much more complex.
So when I was thinking about how I wanted to honor and celebrate America, I decided I wanted to take a different approach. Rather than bringing up old, familiar stories, I wanted to look for some hidden treasures. Maybe it’s the history lover in me, but what I love about American history is that it is filled with untold stories of people’s lives. Stories of success and failure. Stories of prejudice and redemption. Stories of oppression, greed, brokenness, war, evil, and pain. Stories of sacrifice, honor, justice, and liberty. For being a country for such a short period of time, in the large spectrum of human history — we have quite the dramatic tale.
Again, I think often its easy for America to want to form its own collection of forgotten, untold stories because they don’t fit our freedom loving, flag-waving, world-leader vision of America — the land of the brave, equal, and free. I believe however that this is dangerous, because when stories are hidden and go untold, the power of their true beauty is lost.
If they are so easily forgotten, the wasteful, scary reality is that they become so easily repeated.
Let’s face it. Our country is no more perfect then the next one, probably because its full of human people — always has been and always will. America’s stories might not always have a pretty ending, but we bring honor to its victims when we own that past honestly. The beauty is found in the remembering and learning anew. Those are the stories I want to learn and want to share.
So over the next few weeks, I am going to be researching and sharing some American Untold Stories I have found.
And I hope that just like the other night, when amidst the unrelenting clouds and persistent rain — that we all find a way to see America the Beautiful again.
Have any thoughts or questions? I would love to hear them!