The British foreign secretary, Mr. Cook, has generated great anger in former British colonies--India and Israel, to name two. According to one commentator, his gaffs were not based on post-imperial delusions of grandeur, as some accused, but on the fact that he does not regard himself as an heir to the British empire. That is, he claims no personal connection with unsavory aspects of his country's past.
I have that same struggle.
The treatment of Native Americans was tragic, one example being the Trail of Tears during Andrew Jackson's presidency. But, because this happened so long ago, and because I see this tragedy in the context of history's unbroken chain of violence occurring whenever one group moves into the territory of another, I deny any personal responsibility. I also firmly resist and resent the effort of those who want to generate guilt in me for such sins of the past. The terrible tragedies are acknowledged, but any personal responsibility on my part is denied.
Yet, I gladly claim the Declaration of Independence as part of my history. I embrace with pride the astounding bravery and fortitude of those who set out on the trans-contintenal Oregon Trail in the 1840s as well as those in 1942 who, on Wake Island, withstood six assaults by massively superior Japanese forces before being overrun. I am pleased (prideful, actually) with the British historian, Paul Johnson, whose first two sentences in his book on this country are: "The creation of the United States of America is the greatest of all human adventures. No other national story holds such tremendous lessons, for the American people themselves and for the rest of mankind."
But, can I accept the pride without the guilt? I think not. I am an heir to my country's past--all of it--the Trail of Tears, as well as the Declaration of Independence. The whole ball of wax is this country's history, and every bit of it is an integral part of my personal story.
I had to learn as a citizen what I earlier learned personally. Acknowledging and accepting my "shadow side" was necessary to grow a healthy self. Trivializing and denying my past allowed bewildering actions and less than straight-forward relationships to slip into, and plague, my life. I view the serious strains and injustices of our national life in the same way.
Acknowledging the truth was a difficult first step. The even more difficult second step--changing behavior--came next. Acknowledging and changing is the only way we successfully become true heirs to our own, as well as our country's past.
A genuinely healing trail of tears.
--Robert H. Tucker
25 May 1998