Recently we attend a talk by a well-known physician who has contributed much to international human rights efforts. This person has recently returned to his post at Harvard University, after a lengthy stint as Director of a human rights related NGO. In the past, he proved on-the-ground medical services to Indigenous rebels in Central America.
Given the proximity to Thanksgiving, this gentleman, whose roots are deep in the New England Unitarian-Universalist tradition, told stories about the Founding Mothers and Fathers. One of the stories involved the efforts of Benjamin Franklin to have the turkey become the national bird/symbol. In this version, Squanto, who had been to England, met the Queen, and spoke fluent English, rescued the Pilgrims by feeding them, and teaching them to catch, eel. When, some hundred years later, Franklin wanted the turkey to become the national symbol, the Founding Mothers rebelled, as they had become very fond of eating turkey, instead of eel, and could not imagine regularly cooking the national symbol.
On the surface, the stories were humorous. However, I found them quite painful. The notion of Europeans founding the country suggests there was no one here upon their arrival. It further suggests a sort of paternalism toward any First Nations persons who might have been around. Finally, such language serves to obscure, if not entirely erase, the genocide upon which this country is founded.
After his presentation, I spoke briefly to him about my concerns. (I was in a reception line….) He looked thoughtful and said, “Maybe I should change my language.” At this, I felt a moment of despair, for the problem is larger than language. There seems to be, in most countries, a reticence to speak about the real impacts of their histories of colonialism, slavery, and genocide. At the same time, the denizens of countries are quick to point out the historical and ongoing traumas attached to other countries. Something similar happens in families.
Around the world individuals, families, and countries are wrestling with issues of privilege, acknowledgment, accountability, and forgiving. These are terribly difficult issues. Yet, the very effort to address them opens the door to healing. Let us hold a vision in which the courage to face our wrongdoings, employ empathy, and tell the truth create a more livable world.