Last October, I listened as the presidential families in the visitor center video described their awe at entering the White House for the first time. Repeatedly, they recognized the White House as a symbol of freedom for all.
Yet I knew the White House was built using slave labor leased by the U.S. government. During that visit, I grappled once again with the question: how do I reconcile my love for America, my country of birth, with the outrages of its past history and outrageousness of its present politics?
As the video rightly celebrated and revered American ideals, the problematic aspects of our national past and present, unacknowledged by the film, seemed to break into the edges of the screen, demanding my attention.
After the White House tour, the innovative spatial arrangement of D.C.’s National Museum of African History and Culture felt like a descent, hundreds of years into the past, then a painfully slow rise through the horrific timeline of American slavery, segregation laws, and continued inequities.
No book or article I'd read prepared me for walls crammed with slave ship death counts, or diagrams illustrating how to stack future slaves tightly as possible for months-long voyages. Nothing could match the sickening effect of seeing a case of human shackles positioned near the Founding Fathers' words on the walls above, declaring every person's inalienable right to freedom.
Later that day, we explored the National Museum of the American Indian. Rather than a descent into the past, this museum felt like an endless spiral through broken contracts and the disturbing rationalizations used to justify them. The trail felt as circular as the logic of resettling people whose blood and bone are tied to their ancestral land and then condemning them for poverty and dependence.
America is terrible, and much of its history, dispiriting.
And America is beautiful, too, with many of its ideals bursting with humanity, and many of its people, welcoming and open-hearted.
But I can't be afraid to acknowledge what's terrible, as though such acknowledgement diminishes what's beautiful — or negates my patriotism. So that I can look the truth in the face, and also avoid despair, I must learn to process and hold it all.
Searching for a Consistent Narrative
Recently, I visited Gandhi Smriti in New Delhi, where Mahatma Gandhi spent his last days. I moved through the grounds, awed that the man who led India to freedom from colonial rule had once lived, written, spoken there.
However, our guide related in a relentless monologue Gandhi's more controversial actions and beliefs. He declared that Gandhi was overvalued, and by honoring him, we refused to acknowledge reality.
Though already familiar with the negative information the guide related, I didn't want to hear him contradict my narrative of Gandhi as an innovative and heroic leader. By contrast, the guide believed flaws disqualified Gandhi from any reverence.
By insisting on a perfectly consistent narrative, we both made the same mistake, unable to allow the positive and negative aspects of Gandhi to co-exist. We were fighting the realities of human beings and history.
Pouring our Gold
The Japanese art of kintsugi — literally, golden joinery — pours gold into broken pottery to repair it. When the liquid hardens, the piece becomes unique, its design formed from its own particular cracks. The finished piece is appreciated not only for the addition of gold, but also because it accepts its history, recognizing each fissure as integral to the whole. It owns its truth.
This golden joinery offers a way to understand America accurately and embrace her as she is.
America represents the part of us that wants to grow unfettered, to thrive and unfurl fully — the part of us most accepting of new people, notions, and ways of seeing. Though our behavior in the past and the present has cracked these ideals profoundly, America doesn't have to shatter, nor does our love for her.
Here, in this middle ground between ideals and realities, we can pour our gold — that is, our attention, our insight, and most importantly, our actions. Here, we can ask America to own her truth. We can join her failures with her triumphs and regard her for what she is: an idea that could materialize, an ideal that could actualize, when there is indeed freedom for all.