Wissot: A conversation with America
Wissot: Wow! You’re 244 years old today. How does it feel to be that old? I’m 75 and feel like I’m ancient. Tired of body and mind, if you catch my drift. You must feel three times more depleted than I do.
America: Is that supposed to make me feel good on my birthday?
Wissot: Sorry. Didn’t mean to offend you. Let’s turn to a serious question. It coincidentally took 244 years to abolish slavery from the time slaves were brought to Jamestown in 1619 to the moment Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. Are you surprised that it took so long?
America: Nothing surprises me about my history. Look, this grand experiment in democratic governance, this contradiction-plagued adventure begun by a band of enlightened 18th-century revolutionaries, has always been fraught with a mixture of good and evil.
Wissot: What do you mean by that ?
America: What I mean is that you don’t achieve greatness as a nation without getting your hands dirty. You don’t become the most powerful nation on the planet in terms of economic wealth and military might without leaving some skeletons hidden in your closet.
Wissot: Which skeletons are you referring to?
America: The two original sins I was was founded upon: the systematic displacement, and in some cases extermination, of Native Americans as we expanded westward and expropriated their land; and second, the exploitation of slave labor from the cotton plantations in the South to the manufacturing textile mills of the North which enabled us to become an industrial power.
Wissot: Do you regret that we did that ?
America: It’s not a matter of regret. What was done can’t be undone.
Wissot: Then why even bring it up ?
America: Because it happened. Because it’s real. Because it’s part of who I am, who we are, as a nation. Because it’s as much historical fact as are our shared victories in two world wars, the assimilation of millions of immigrants, the sending of a man to the moon. If we are going to ever achieve an accurate reckoning of our past so that we don’t continue to repeat our mistakes in the future we need to level with ourselves regarding who we were and still are.
Wissot: Haven’t we done that ?
America: Hell no, we haven’t. We’ve substituted mythology and fantasy for history. If you want to read about mythology go to the Greeks and Romans; if you want to enjoy fantasy, stream a Disney movie. But if you want to accurately portray who we have been as Americans, we have to do a better job than we have.
Wissot: What would it take to do that?
America: For starters, an admission of sincere shame comparable to our expressions of patriotic pride. I’ve observed these foolish arguments about preserving Confederate monuments because they are part of our history. They certainly are. They are a disgraceful part of our history. They shouldn’t be celebrated in public. They should be condemned in private.
Do you know why if you travel in Germany today you never come across an Adolph Hitler High School or a Hermann Goering Library or a Heinrich Himmler highway? It’s because they are ashamed of those monsters and have no wish to extol their crimes. Instead, as you walk the streets of Berlin, you see historical markers acknowledging the evil committed by the Nazis.
We don’t need statues of Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis gracing public squares and college campuses. Gather them up and ship them off to the Museum Dedicated to the Sordid History of the Confederacy. We don’t need to erase the history of the Civil War; we just need to face the fact as a country that the South was guilty of treason. There was no secession clause in the Constitution. They were traitors fighting for the right to eternally enslave a race of people. Approximately 258,000 Confederate soldiers perished in the Civil War. They were not glorious heroes but men who died in vain; senselessly sacrificed for an abhorrently immoral cause.
Wissot: Are you saying we have not come to terms with our sense of shame?
America: We absolutely haven’t. For heaven’s sake, 12 of our first 18 presidents, beginning with Washington and ending with Grant, owned slaves either before or while they were in the White House. And now protestors are calling for the removal of public statues and monuments honoring these men.
Wissot: Should they be removed ?
America: Removing their statues won’t change the fact that they were elected to office by voters in both the North and South. Vandalizing a statue won’t erase the fact that owning slaves for a majority of Americans didn’t disqualify you from becoming president. The country was complicit in the establishment and advancement of slavery; eradicating a symbol of that sin doesn’t exonerate us as a nation for what we did to a race of people.
Wissot: How do we come to grips with the systemic racism that began with our Founding Fathers?
America: Tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Broadcast the facts about the unholy contradictions that were part and parcel of my birth 244 years ago. Systemic racism didn’t begin with slaveholding presidents, it began with a country that permitted Black people to be bought and sold like animals.
When Blacks proclaim Black Lives Matter, they are not implying white lives don’t matter. Au contraire. They are saying they want Black lives to matter to white America as much as white lives matter to white America.
If you want to make BLM an anachronism, white people need to stop viewing Black people as inferior. White belief in Black inferiority justified enslavement, then segregation, and now incarceration. Blacks will believe their lives matter to whites when “treating others as you want to be treated” replaces systemic racism.
Wissot: Appreciate your time. Two-hundred and 43 of my elderly friends and I are going to blow out the candles on your birthday cake later. We’re each taking a candle. Should have it done in three hours. Tops.
Jay Wissot is a resident of Denver and Vail. Email him at email@example.com.
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