I remember the first time I saw her face.
Not the day or the time or the setting, although I was definitely a graduate student at the time, pursuing a Ph.D. in American history. But what I remember most is the turn of my stomach.
There were two battered, black bodies hanging in a tree behind her. The men’s faces were contorted, grotesque, horrifying.
The bodies were nightmarish. But she made me want to vomit.
She was half smiling, almost smirking, definitely excited. She was young, younger than me at the time, maybe 15. And she was surrounded by equally enthralled adults, probably including her parents. It was a large crowd in Marion, Indiana in 1930, with not a shred of shame to be found.
And I thought to myself, “Why didn’t anyone tell me?”
I would think that to myself over and over and over and over, as I studied American history for eight long years until I finally finished my degree. I thought it when I saw photos of Klansmen in churches. I thought it when I saw the shredded backs of slaves. I asked it when I read about children ripped from their mothers arms on slaves blocks and slave women raped in front of their husbands. I asked it when I read proslavery theology, which formed the basis of my (at the time) denomination’s founding. I asked it when I read about the reign of terror that descended on the South after the last Union troops left in 1876 and the Great Migration north it spawned. When I read about their discrimination in northern cities, where they crowded in ghettos with more drugs than opportunity. And when I learned about the Tulsa Massacre, 100 years ago this month, which killed hundreds of blacks and wiped out the wealth of the nation’s most prosperous black community, I thought to myself, “Why didn’t anyone tell me?”
I had arrived at graduate school with a completely different mindset. I had attended predominantly white evangelical schools at a time when conservatives were up in arms about “revisionist history.” Instead of learning about presidents and wars, students were being taught “social history,” “useless stuff” about ordinary Americans, including women and minorities. I heard things like, “We’d love to include all these smaller histories, but there’s only so much time in the day, and we can’t have Americans running around ignorant about the Founding Fathers and our political history. It’s really too bad, but white men made our history, so that’s what we’ve got to teach.”
Soon after arriving at grad school and having already been subjected to this other sort of history, I drew a cartoon that I thought was just hysterical at the time. It showed a student being told by the registrar that American History was no longer offered, but he could take “The History of Oppressed People Groups.” Oof. I am so ashamed to think of it.
The version of slavery and race I had been taught was the Gone with the Wind story, of happy, well cared-for slaves, devoted to the families they served even after freedom. There were some bad masters, yes, but most were good and kind. They had slaves because they just didn’t know any better back then. At least the slaves became Christians, that was the main thing. The Civil War was about states rights, not slavery. Robert E. Lee was an American icon. Segregation was bad, too, but generally, America used to be a much more moral place, besides that. No, America used to be a Christian nation, I was told. The colonists came for religious freedom, and the Founding Fathers were Christians, too. It’s just really been downhill since the 1960’s.
I believed that, because that is what I was taught.
But then I saw her face, and the deep evil it betrayed. The kind of evil that thought brutally murdering two human beings was a fun family activity that children might attend. And I saw many more faces, faces that looked like mine, sometimes doing good and sometimes participating in unmitigated bad, and those that did not look like me. And I read the many little, unimportant stories of Americans who worked and bled and died for this country before it gave them anything in return, not even their humanity. And I began to discover that their stories were actually THE BEST PART! Heart-breaking, complicated, uncomfortable, enraging, but more inspiring than any myth. Stories of people who continue to carry our founding values towards the finish line, even if it costs them everything. And I realized their stories were all of our story, and they could be my story, too, if I told it and claimed it and joined in it. Harriet Tubman was my fellow American just as much as George Washington. She was certainly more consequential than at least half the Presidents (Chester Arthur, anyone?).
I began to ask who decided these stories were little and unimportant. And why.
And I began to see how they were deeply important to the big story of our nation–the true, real, messy story–and how you couldn’t understand Thomas Jefferson without understanding Sally Hemings and you couldn’t understand the horrors of the Civil War without acknowledging the horrors of slavery and you couldn’t understand the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution without understanding who they left out. And that insisting that America was a Christian nation with a glorified past had led to the literal white-washing of our history, the erasure of people and truths that didn’t fit into that narrative and cast doubt on its claims and those who make them.
(By the way, not only was Thomas Jefferson not a Christian–many of the Founding Fathers were not–he made his own version of the Bible that removed all references to Jesus’s divinity. Also, almost half of mid-18th century brides in America were pregnant, a fact easily discoverable by historians through comparing marriage and birth records. Just a couple fun data points I didn’t learn in evangelical history class.)
When I began to learn the truth of American history–the full truth–I felt betrayed. Not because America turned out to be, well, human. But because people had refused to allow that. They lied to me. Maybe they didn’t know they were lying. Maybe they were just repeating what they had been told. But it wasn’t the truth. And the truth matters. We continue to live with the truth, whether we acknowledge or not. And we’re so much better off if we do. You can grow from the truth, but lies and myths and fairy tales are a beautiful grave.
The evangelical version of American history in my view is like many stories that culture tells itself. Selective, exclusive, carefully curated. A little too pretty, too sweet, simple-carbohydrate-teeth-rotting empty calories. For a religion supposedly based on the humbling, equalizing, but ultimately liberating fact that we’re all sinners, a great deal of effort goes into hiding the sins of the saints. Abusive leaders slide by. People with complicated, inconvenient stories and experiences are denied. Anything complicated and inconvenient in our own stories is, too. People who challenge the narrative and those who write it are chased out. Some topics aren’t discussed. Questions and doubts aren’t well-tolerated. The Big Story is the most important thing–We are the good guys, they are the bad guys. We’re engaged in a holy war in which anything goes in service to that cause. And when it comes to America, she’s ours, and they are trying to take her away. She used to be beautiful, but now she’s sullied.
It’s such a damn shame. Because one thing I’ve learned from studying American history is that people, and nations of people, don’t have to be perfect to be cherished. And they never will be all they can be until they–until we–grapple with all parts of ourselves. There’s an element of ironic self-loathing in the evangelical refusal to look at things in their face, as if they are afraid it will be more than they can bear. And it will be, because they have invested so much of their self-worth in maintaining a mirage.
Look, all really have sinned, and America has sinned. Does it mean America is a worthless piece of sh*t? Does it mean you are, dear fellow sinner?
While it’s true that slavery and inequality is literally written into America’s founding documents, those documents also contain the roadmap to the promised land. When they were written, in an era of divine-right monarchy and rigid hierarchy, even the idea that all white men were created equal and had certain inalienable rights was revolutionary, literally. Those ideas changed the world, and they continue to reverberate, ever forward. Those words eventually did free the slaves and gave women the right to vote. They continue to be a guiding light. And if you take an accurate, all-encompassing view of America, we are actually morally progressing, not morally declining.
(But abortion! Lord have mercy. Abortion has always existed, and in fact, our current abortion rate may well be lower than at any time in our history, thanks to contraceptives. Sit down and read some history. I’m begging you.)
I have learned as much about being an American from the failures to live up to those founding words, from the stories of people who weren’t included in them, and from the adrenaline-addled face of a white girl in Indiana in 1930, not all that far removed from me in place and time and culture. She probably didn’t know any better than to think the lynching of two black men made for an exciting Friday night. She participated in a story that had been given to her, one that suited the horribly distorted image the dominant culture had of itself.
Stories matter. Myths destroy.
And true stories are the best kind anyway.