How do we tell the birth story of the United States? In this month that marks our national independence, the conventional narrative begins with July 4, 1776. That version of our history celebrates the triumph of liberty, democracy and opportunity.
Yet as Nikole Hannah-Jones reminded us in The New York Times, American culture as we know it also dates back to 1619, when a slavery ship docked in Virginia, where white colonists purchased more than 20 black Africans. This story is tragic from the outset, grounded in brutal racism, enduring cruelty and immeasurable exploitation.
Which of these tales tells the truth? That question is neither academic nor a matter that pertains only to the past; our answers actively frame the way we understand who we are today.
For some, the first version is the proud reality, while the second is a slanderous attack on our national character. For others, the former is cliché patriotic blather that ignores three centuries of African-American servitude and suffering. Identifying passionately with either of these positions, we can find it extraordinarily difficult to converse with those on the other side. With opinions amplified by social media echo chambers, the great divide deepens almost daily.
Yet if we want our country to endure, we must learn to listen and learn from one another. As Abraham Lincoln reminded us before the Civil War began, a house divided against itself cannot stand. The ultimate fate of the American experiment hinges upon our ability to find or create a common story of our origins that bridges political divisions and inspires us to envision a better future, together.
To do this, we must recognize that life is complicated and binaries are mostly unhelpful. If our only choices are either 1619 or 1776, we will keep finding reasons to stand divided. But if we can shift our thinking from “either/or” to “both/and,” we might still find a shared path forward.
We need both of these stories, because even as neither affords the full truth, each offers something essential. To begin in 1776 is to whitewash our nation’s original sin; honesty and justice demand that we recognize the evil of 1619 and its lasting legacy of systemic racism.
Yet we dearly need the ideals that shaped the spirit of ’76, even if the Founding Fathers who authored them failed badly to live up to their own moral demands. Those principles, enshrined in our nation’s sacred texts, remind us that when we follow the better angels of our nature, America can be a haven of liberty, justice and opportunity.
To help maintain that delicate balance, I often draw upon my Jewish tradition, which affirms that we can — and must — hold on to opposing ideas and emotions at the same time. We recognize that even our saddest events contain possibilities of joy, and our most jubilant occasions are still tinged with sorrow. When we grieve the death of loved ones, we utter the Kaddish, a prayer that is almost always associated with mourning, yet is composed entirely of words of praise. And when we celebrate at weddings, we conclude the ceremony by breaking a glass, to remind us that pain and brokenness are an inevitable part of life.
Joy and sorrow, life and death, liberty and slavery, oppression and redemption — it’s all one big, messy dance. Our future depends on our ability to dance it together.
Dan Fink is the rabbi for the Ahavath Beth Israel congregation. The Idaho Statesman’s weekly faith column features a rotation of writers from many different faiths and perspectives.