To perhaps state the obvious, it’s hard to correct the errors of the past and chart new directions for the future without actually confronting that history and processing and acknowledging the results of past behaviors so one can see and assess other options moving forward.
That’s Therapy 101. It’s not just a quasi-religious ritual of self-castigation for one’s sins. Indeed, such confessions tend merely to offer momentary absolution and grant license to continue in one’s sinful ways until the next confession. Rather, this confrontation, this process, is a rather pragmatic one aimed at coming to terms with the harmfulness and lack of efficacy in those behaviors, for oneself and others, so one can create a healthier life and engage in practices that serve oneself and others more optimally.
As a nation, we have, on the whole, had a pretty tough time coming to terms with the myriad and savage inhumanities upon which the nation was founded and which arguably fueled its development.
Back in 1998, you may recall, President Bill Clinton, speaking to a crowd in Uganda, offered a muted apology for the U.S.’s “shameful legacy” in Africa, including its role in the slave trade and its support of harsh dictatorships. Earlier, though, he had considered and rejected apologizing to African Americans for slavery as part of proposed campaign to foster racial reconciliation.
America, particularly White America, behaves like a stubborn child, with arms folded, declaring, “I’m not sorry.”
In 2008, the House put forward a resolution apologizing for slavery, followed by the Senate in 2009, but no joint resolution ever passed.
Last summer, of course, Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton proposed legislation that would deny federal funding to schools that in any way used the The New York Times controversial 1619 project in its curriculum. This Pulitzer-prize-winning series in The New York Times, of course, explored the history of the United States through the lens of slavery, premised on the fact that accounts of slavery have not been expansively, roundly, and fully incorporated into accounts of U.S. history, particularly in its earliest stages.
And, of course, in the wake of the police murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, Donald Trump railed against the removal of Confederate monuments celebrating a violent racist past.
Unless we let go of this past, stop clinging to historical practices that further violence and death rather than affirm and nurture life, we can’t create a healthier and more humane future, a more perfect union.
President-elect Joe Biden has praised his Cabinet as one of “firsts,” asserting that when all the positions are filled his Cabinet “will be the most representative of any Cabinet in American history. We’ll have more people of color than any Cabinet ever. We’ll have more women than any Cabinet ever. We’ll have a Cabinet of barrier-breakers. A Cabinet of firsts.”
Being representative is, without question, a step forward. In itself, however, it is no guarantee. Just consider the actions of Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson, an African American. He actually instituted policies that eroded previous fair housing legal provisions, thwarting policy that encouraged desegregation.
So, no, one’s identity, forged through history though it might be, does not necessarily dictate one’s politics.
But Biden’s team seems different. They seem to recognize the ways the nation’s history of discrimination, violence, and exploitation has not just been inhumane but held us all back from achieving not only justice but our full potential to create a healthy and wealthy society and economy that serve all.
Take Congressperson Deb Haaland, the first Native American nominated to serve as Secretary of the Interior. When she spoke at the Democratic Convention last summer, she was not afraid to address the nation’s history directly and neutrally in order to underscore our obstacles and envision a real path for overcoming them. Introducing herself as Pueblo Indian speaking on indigenous land, she gave us a broader view of history, letting us know that, “The promise of this country is older than our constitution. Over 500 years ago, thousands of Indian tribes were vibrant democratic societies with rich cultures and traditions and communities that had sustained them for millennia on lands they loved and respected. My people, the Pueblo Indians, migrated to the Rio Grande Valley in the late 1200s to escape droughts. We were led to the great river and its tributaries, where we established an agricultural tradition that continues to this day.”
The nation has much to draw on from these traditions, in terms of surviving devastation and finding new ways to live: “My people survived centuries of slavery, genocide and brutal assimilation policies. But throughout our past, tribal nations have fought for and helped build this country.”
I can’t really remember slavery and genocide being addressed at a major U.S. political convention, making us confront our history while proclaiming hope rooted in the history of survival and ingenuity of those most brutalized in this history. “I’m a symbol of our resilience as the embodiment of America’s progress as a nation,” she told us, “I know we can’t take our democracy for granted, especially now, as people are dying, as our land is abused, as our constitution is under attack.”
The survivors’ perspectives highlight the obstacles we face and the real possibility of overcoming them.
Pete Buttigieg, the first openly gay man nominated for Secretary of Transportation, recalled as a 17 year-old watching a gay man Bill Clinton nominated for an ambassador position denied by the Senate because of his sexuality.
The experiential knowledge contained in these perspectives provides privileged insight into what holds us back as a nation. While these perspectives may inhere in an identity and particular historical experience, the politics they yield serve us all.
Debates over reparations, for example, while centered on African Americans, also draw attention to the larger history of labor exploitation of all peoples, especially working-class people, in U.S. history, asking us to make amends and find new ways of organizing labor in non-exploitive ways.
While the stand-offs at Standing Rock over the Keystone pipeline might have centered on Native Americans’ struggle for their land rights, the struggle was also to protect the destruction of our environment, the ecological foundation of all of our lives.
Haaland and Buttigieg, as just two examples from Biden’s Cabinet choices, aren’t looking for apologies necessarily; when they speak, they are diagnosing what holds us all back so we can move beyond these past and persistent repressions to give full life, to create an optimal society and economy, for all Americans.
Tim Libretti is a professor of U.S. literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A long-time progressive voice, he has published many academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, the National Federation of Press Women, and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association.