When we tell the story of America, it is generally contained in a single linear and straightforward narrative. A single strand with a distinctive WASPy sheen, a single strand that hopes to bind together a diverse and discordant country, a single strand that only succeeds in strangling one truth. That the story of America is not a single story, it is a story of stories. Stories bound together by violent contradiction and unparalleled promise. It is vital to tell this story of stories because there is power and truth in compelling national narratives that cannot be ignored and certainly cannot be given up to those that would use this nation’s history for their own nativist and reactionary ends.
The story of America is not a single thread, it is not a single strand — it is a thick, twisting rope stained in blood, marred by hypocrisy, but marked by glory. It is made of hundreds of strands, dozens of threads that twist together to make one greater whole, a rope that binds us.
Our narrative rope is one that twists and turns, full of friction and burns. We are too often told that a single thread, a single narrative, that of white men alone is the primary driving force of American history, and as a result, any other narratives are secondary, auxiliary, supplementary. This is not even a slightly accurate depiction of the breadth of the American narrative — because it is the narrative of white Anglo-American men. It is not that this narrative is illegitimate, but that this narrative, or any narrative, alone is incomplete. A complete picture of the American story is one that views American history as the product of braiding together many narratives.
Let's start with the storybook narrative of the founding of this nation defacto concentrates on white Anglo-American men. Think of this as a single strand. However, it is not alone, it is one of many strands in a greater thread (the narrative of all Anglo-Americans). Then to view this classic narrative accurately, imagine three distinct threads being braided into one greater rope. In this example, the three threads would be best understood as: Indigenous people (which is itself a simplification because there is no one group of American Indians), English colonists, and slaves. Further, each thread contains many narrative strands of the various intersections of identity (gender, sexual orientation, faith, creed, etc.). The number of threads and number of strands that make up the rope that binds us cannot and should not be expressly enumerated because those numbers are not fixed. Our stories are always changing and evolving, with new threads and strands — and an attempt to enumerate would doubtlessly exclude. The Rope that Binds Us is at its heart a lens to evaluate American history, not a dogmatic code to follow. It is a lens that allows us to see ourselves as we truly are, an American Constellation, a star-spangled people of peoples.
The American story is not just the archetypal progression of Columbus to Plymouth to Declaration to Now. It is just as much the stories of the Six Nations of the Iroquois, the Spanish Missions, the first Slaves in 1619, to the newest immigrants of 2020. The American story includes all the peoples who inhabitant the land that is now the United States, which means the American story starts in many different places, in many different times.
A common place and common history cannot bind alone. And in search of national unity, we cannot pretend that unity for the sake of unity will endure. Unity must be predicated on a shared purpose. A shared purpose that must be broad enough to include, but not so overbroad to be meaningless; strong enough to bind, but not narrow enough to strangle. We require not just a shared purpose, but a Common Purpose. We require a sense of Common Purpose that speaks to our best angels, to rebuild and revitalize a New Americanism — to give meaning to the sacrifices of the past and express a vision for our future. One need not look far to find that purpose — It is a single sentence, a long sentence, that is three-quarters forgotten.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness, — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
We form governments to protect and uphold our most sacred rights — the right to live, to freedom, and to be the main agent of our life’s course. That we, the people, may dictate how our government goes about protecting those rights — and in that process of decision making every citizen has equal footing. And if our government is unable or unwilling to secure our rights to the satisfaction of the people, that government is subject to reform or replacement. Our government is an expression of what we wish it to be — that we must be the agents of our fates together. It is the fruition of this sacred promise, that has been so often betrayed, that must be the beating heart and soul of a New Americanism, bound together by this Common Purpose and our intertwined histories. We must bring about a just republic, that does not just simply speak of equality and liberty but provides a star-spangled iron guarantee of equality and freedom for all her citizens.
This New Americanism cannot pretend that this promise has been upheld. It has not. The United States is best understood as a nation born of liberty, but a nation stained in blood. We were founded on principles of liberty and truth and justice but immediately descended into the worst of brutal hypocrisies.
Every nation is a charnel house. The United States is no exception. We must recognize that our temple of liberty is a temple built in blood and bone. We cannot wipe away the death and pain and misery. We cannot forget the dead unjustly ripped from this mortal coil by men and women who prized their own ambition, or narrow vision of nation so much as to commit barbarous and heinous acts of violence. Nor can the dead be left to claim our future for themselves. We cannot bring them back to life, but we can build a better world and do what we can to heal the wounds of history. Our future must be the redemption of our better angels and delivery to all of the just fruits of liberty denied to so many.
This New Americanism and the Rope That Binds Us cannot view our American story as uncontested. The United States is not fated to be a just temple of liberty, the great golden door open to all peoples, we can fail to follow our better angels and instead fall to be the worst demons. The United States of America has been a multi-century fight between the liberalism and the nativism of the First Founding, and the failure to fulfill our Second. This fight is the product of our birth as a nation dedicated to liberty that enshrined the most barbarous tyrannies.
However, it is vital to understand that the United States is not the Republic of the Founders. That Republic fell when the first shell struck Fort Sumter. Their More Perfect Union failed; but it was reborn. However, that rebirth (First Reconstruction) was strangled in its crib by Andrew Johnson and the eventual capitulation of the Republican Party to white supremacy. Even after the Second Reconstruction (the Civil Rights Movement) the United States has not cashed the check owed to the dispossessed, those long forgotten and trodden upon by systemic racism, xenophobia, and every other form of despicable bigotry. This tension — a star-spangled Sword of Damocles cannot be escaped so long as the United States exists.
If a political movement rejects American history while pursuing American political power — it will be ill-fated. It would be like wielding a thunderbolt but tossing it aside so one could cobble together a replacement sometime in the future, hoping that it will have the same power. American history has a potent political and rhetorical lineage that speaks clearly to how we can do better, be better. We do not need to go in search of some new creation that must then be acclimatized to America. The seeds of a New Americanism are already here — for a New Americanism is a rebirth of Douglassian Americanism, the Lion of Anacostia lives on in those who wish to bring the United States to its best form.
The United States can never know national absolution, we cannot wash away the butchery and the blood, but we can, through national reconsecration, know a just and inclusive peace. There is more that binds us than blood and shackles — there is our common march towards the fruition of the self-evident truths, towards a Just Union, A Just Republic, and a Just Society. But that Just Republic can only be brought about through toil and dedication. Not just a new birth of freedom, but a rebirth of freedom. We require an absolute rededication to an American Constellation, for justice, liberty, and equality — a rededication to see through to completion a Third Reconstruction.