December 30, 2016

Dear Americans: Know Your History

I wasn’t on earth the day that Donald Trump was elected the 45th President of the United States.

Well, technically I was on a flight from San Francisco to New York, but it makes me feel better to disassociate from what I consider one of the most embarrassing (and potentially deadly) elections in modern history.

As I landed in Trump’s hometown during the early morning of November 9, gloom swept over me. I turned on my phone and was jolted to see that our working class, in part – mechanics, receptionists, truck drivers, janitors – cast their vote for a man who lives among the clouds in a gold apartment, a button from one of his gaudy sofas probably costing more than some of his supporters make in a week.

No one demographic is to blame, of course, but it pains me to know that the kind folks I cherish from football games and lawn fetes of my youth were swindled by a repulsive, misguided billionaire who promised to “Make America Great Again.”

Our country has experienced the most beautiful, heinous, magical, inspiring and heartbreaking scenes that the globe has ever offered to humans. We typically learn from our mistakes, but sometimes, we stray from the traits that make us, as Americans, so admired throughout the world.

We can say that America is great, but we also need to understand that when our Constitution was written, one-fifth of the population – almost half a million people – were slaves. As a citizen, it’s our duty to understand our past; not necessarily thinking about it constantly, but drawing from our collective memory when we experience similar events, people and situations.

Our past is uncomfortable (to say the least), but history is the thing that binds us all together; a story so interconnected that it goes beyond skin color or country of origin. When we ignore the past, especially mistakes and warnings, things become a little surreal. More importantly, that’s when things start to become dangerous.

Although many folks are “proud” to be American, it’s unfortunate that many don’t know much of their own family history. For me, research into my family history has allowed me to be more sympathetic to the struggles of others.

My fourteenth great-grandparents were born in the mid-1600’s in the colony of Virginia, the first permanently settled English colony in North America. My hometown of Buffalo was settled by Europeans a century later, although the original name of “New Amsterdam” didn’t catch on. After that, my German, Irish and Italian ancestors arrived.

My partner, Jan, was born in the late 1980’s in German Democratic Republic or GDR (Deutsche Demokratische Republik). Governed by the Socialist Unity Party (SED), it was mostly a totalitarian state until 1990. When I met his grandparents, they told me that they remember the American soldiers being “nice” when Germany was liberated in their youth.

My paternal grandmother, Christina, was born in the United States of Italian heritage on October 31, 1945, a month after World War II came to an end. Could you imagine being pregnant during a global war?

As Americans, we all need to realize how deeply we’re embedded in the national dialogue of not only U.S. history, but the global evolution of the world. This can help us drive suspicion and hate from our lives.

A lot of us in the United States have had relatively undramatic lives, especially Millennials, but by tracing our history a few generations back, we can identify the reasons why we’re all so proud to be citizens. Why we’re all lucky to be citizens.

When I’m feeling overwhelmed by the antics of Trump nation, I reminisce about the true American spirit, the one that has prevailed time and time again, beginning with native inhabitants to present day immigrants.

In the early 1800’s, Sarah Moore Grimk√©, born into a prominent planter family in the south, defied law and taught her personal slave to read. Ms. Grimk√©, like millions of citizens past and present, is a true American.

Born into privilege and wealth, she drove social movements that benefited not only her own interests (women’s suffrage), but also helped those would have continued to be oppressed by her silence (abolitionist).

In the summer of 1893, another true American, Dorothy Thompson, was born in my hometown of Lancaster, New York, ten miles east of Buffalo. While working in Munich, she met and interviewed Hitler in 1931, ultimately writing about the dangers of Hitler’s rise to power. Her book, I Saw Hitler, was published in 1932.

Known as the “First Lady of American Journalism,” Thompson was the first journalist expelled from Nazi Germany in 1934. One gem from Ms. Thompson about Adolf Hitler:

“He is formless, almost faceless, a man whose countenance is a caricature, a man whose framework seems cartilaginous, without bones. He is inconsequent and voluble, ill poised and insecure. He is the very prototype of the little man.”

Thanks for being an honest journalist, Dorothy.

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