Last week President Obama was in Alaska where he restored Mount McKinley to its earlier native name, Denali. Me? I was sitting on a beach devouring a pile of books. Allow me a moment to recommend three of them.
- Sylvia Engdahl’s young adult science fiction novel This Star Shall Abide had a profound impact on me when I first read it in the mid 1970’s. I go back to it every few years. It is the story of a young man who challenges the restrictive religious practices of his world. In becoming a heretic, he discovers the origins of his people’s faith and traditions. In examining the truth of his people’s narratives, he comes to embrace his role and purpose in his society.
- Nathaniel Philbrick’s Bunker Hill tells the story of a small group of radicals who, before most American patriots were ready to break from their identity as loyal subjects of King George III, invited an armed conflict that would lead to revolution. It is also the story of how a slave owning Southerner, George Washington, came to Cambridge to start knitting these disparate militias into one shared national identity- leading up to the victory we in Boston celebrate as Evacuation Day.
- Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me is an incisive and challenging meditation on the American experience in the form of a letter to his teenage son. As he seeks to make sense of racial injustice in our country, he lays out a critique of “the dreamers.” Our national narrative of the American Dream, with all of its aspirations and hopes, is built on another national experience, the destruction of the black body. He tells his son that it is not his burden to solve racism, but rather that “the Dreamers will have to learn to struggle for themselves.”
Naming places. Finding truths. Creating identity. Understanding narratives.
These aren’t fixed points in history. They are long arcs of evolving and complex experiences that we mold and nurture. To grapple with them is to understand there’s often a “truth” behind a story that evolves into a cherished memory, and in this truth an explanation - such as why we commemorate as such the battle in Charlestown that didn’t even happen on Bunker Hill, or why Alaskans embraced Denali while Ohioans – in an equally bipartisan response - were in uproar.
To understand the experience of others is not to reject our own experiences. To insist that others honor our narratives doesn’t mean we expect them to deny their own. Long before there was a West Bank of Trans-Jordan in 1948, there was Roman Syria Palestina and, before that, a Judea and Samaria. We can say this without rejecting Palestinian national identity, and we can honor Palestinian identity without denying our formed identity as a Jewish People with a homeland, albeit shared.
We can embrace and celebrate our love of country, while also recognizing that the United States, like all nations, has deep flaws – some of which come from our inability to address the ways in which our national narrative was formed, or who has been left out of that formation and its retelling over centuries.
In examining our stories, our myths, and how we made them, we can better honor and celebrate our own identities and those of others. Only in doing so can we build relationships of mutual respect and understanding and thereby, together, address the challenges that face us all in a shared world.