The place where “all men are created equal” is a work in progress. Once upon a time, blacks were enslaved, natives (Indians) killed or relocated, women denied a vote and the Irish, Italians and Chinese marginalized. Right here in Rhode Island we had a rebellion (Dorr’s) which dealt with the fact that non-land owners were denied voting access. To be more accurate, one needed at least $134 of property to vote. We look back at all of this often wondering how these things occurred. We also use clichés like, “That was then” and “Let’s get over it.” I often wonder if folks who advocated for slavery and Indian removal and thought women were somehow inferior knew they were on the wrong side of history. I all too often think the same today.
Immigration and racial issues have been huge topics of late. Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown have become names etched into the American mind. Barack Obama being elected president has also presented its challenges in a number of ways. In addition, issues involving immigrants and the nation’s borders abound. While all of this is happening, a marriage of issues takes place – Obama takes executive action to protect some illegal aliens from deportation.
When Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, the Southern states were not too thrilled. Black Americans got the right to vote in 1870, but many states enacted subsequent laws effectively denying them the vote until the middle of the 20th century. Not allowing our nation’s black population to vote would seem barbaric today (at least in most corners of the nation). Back then the topic seemed worthy of debate. Lincoln has emerged as a legend and those who opposed emancipation are considered old fashioned, out of step or just plain racist. Apparently we have evolved.
When women were fighting for suffrage, many men thought that women were not intelligent enough, or too emotional. Again, this seems absurd today. At present, Rhode Island has a female governor. Nancy Pelosi was the speaker of the House and folks like Hillary Clinton, Geraldine Ferraro, Bella Abzug, Elizabeth Warren, Condoleezza Rice and Elizabeth Dole continue to be or once were, prominent figures on the political landscape. Add in the increasing number of successful businesswomen and it is anachronistic thinking to expect the world to go back towards the days when all of this was not in play. Things have changed, but there is still work to be done.
So, how come we continue to have such a hard time when it comes to race and immigration today? For some, there are irrational fears like, “They are going to take over,” or “the American Way of life is being destroyed.” For others, more so when it comes to immigration, it is about how is this going to work? Those expressing such concerns call out for creating systems that set in motion a process for inclusion. There is merit in this line of thinking. Unfortunately, fear mongering over race and loss of what is ours all too often takes center stage. When that happens, America no longer is that place that proclaims we are all equal. It no longer is the place that asserts, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door.” The America of our hearts knows these words. The America of our fears sometimes needs to be reminded that we all have roots in far off lands.
Cannot we find ways in our hearts and minds to create a viable immigration policy? Cannot we find ways to enhance race relations? Let’s match the ideals of this great country with action that is worthy. America’s greatest days need not be yesterday. Encouraging others to come to the table offers endless possibility. This can be done.
Even now, as the days grow short and winter’s chill is on the horizon, grass lies beneath the pavement waiting for the warmth of spring. When that inexorably takes place, life emerges from even the hardest of surfaces. It sprouts here and there, reaching out for the sun, cracking that which limits natural growth. Sure, efforts will be made to curtail its growth, but left alone, green will cover the harshest ground. Hatred, oppression and prejudice have to be cultivated and taught. Eventually, however, history and nature prevail, bringing about that which is and should be. Let us not curtail our fellow man’s natural rights by being on history’s wrong side.
At this time of year when many gather to celebrate spirit, family and renewal, what better moment than to also reflect upon our relations with others? What better moment than to embrace those who seek to be “a part of” as opposed to disgrace ourselves by promoting that which encourages that we stay “apart from”? What better moment to seek involving our nation’s brothers and sisters rather than having them devolve towards that which separates? History tells us much of what happened yesterday. Today and tomorrow’s pages are yet to be created and written about. Man’s quest for freedom, justice and peace is never ending and inevitable. Mahatma Gandhi was credited with asserting, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” Spread the peace. Enjoy the holidays.