As children, we learn a simple, flattened version of American history. The pilgrims and the Native Americans were buddies and ate corn on the cob together! Now put on this funny hat and make a googly-eyed turkey.
As we grow up, we hopefully learn that the story isn’t that straightforward (or cheerful). Instead, it’s a tale fraught with murder and plunder, political recklessness and social injustice. More often than not, history is the story of the strong taking advantage of the weak.
It’s especially troubling to learn that our ancestors could be—simultaneously—heroes AND villains, regardless of how they got here. Certainly, some were more villainous than others, especially when power and money were involved. But the more we study history, the harder it becomes to see everything as a clean struggle between good and evil. It’s more like sometimes-good vs. sometimes-evil, or good-at-this-moment vs. evil-at-this-moment.
This does not sit well with us. We like tidy narratives from a single perspective. They’re easier to listen to, easier to spin into an animated feature film. Stories told from a range of viewpoints, with overlapping motives and complex characters, are uncomfortable and difficult. They make us squirm.
As Thanksgiving approaches, I’m all for a little more squirming.
Let’s collectively take a harder look at our history, especially as we look with hope toward the future. Let’s not rest on one-dimensional narratives. Our history isn’t a Marvel movie. The “good guys” are, at times, hard to identify. Instead, we find ourselves in a shatteringly complex novel, reaching back over centuries, replete with a dazzling array of characters and competing perspectives.
Let’s be grateful, as Americans, for a difficult heritage. May it force us to be more gracious with one another. May we lean in and listen a little more closely to the multiplicity of voices who call this land home.
Excerpt from this week’s Story Matters