Commentary: Holiday should be a time to look inward
January 16, 2009
We Americans easily lose touch with what our holidays are supposed to mean.
When Abraham Lincoln proclaimed the first official Thanksgiving, it was a day for sober reflection in the midst of the most terrible of all our wars. Now, for most of us, it is a celebration of gluttony and sloth.
Memorial Day and Veterans Day were both proclaimed at times when deaths in combat and uniformed service touched most of the population. Now, despite a few parades and ceremonies, for most Americans they are just days off from work.
Labor Day was created to commemorate the rise of the common man from under the heel of wealthy oppressors - a celebration of the legitimate influence of organized labor. Now it just marks the last "official" weekend of summer.
Martin Luther King's birthday, the newest of our national holidays, seems to already be passing down the same path to trivialization. That seems especially troubling.
Martin Luther King Jr. made Americans come to grips with how they felt about race and how all races were treated in our country. His oratory was stirring, his courage inspiring, but it was the self-examination he forced on all of us that was most important.
Only by getting Americans to look inward in that manner was he able to drive change.
We are losing that valuable introspection.
King's legacy strikes at the very roots of who we are as Americans. Nothing has so profoundly affected how our nation developed as have the relationships between races. But we have always tried to avoid that obvious fact.
We speak in analogies, we generalize, we use grand but vague phrases, but we don't like to get down close and think about race and how it affects each of us.
About a hundred years ago, leading American historians developed a school of thought that said the frontier was the primary source of all that was uniquely American. Our desire to conquer new frontiers, our tendency to band together with our neighbors to face outside threats, our sense of self-reliance - all these, they said, stemmed from the frontier experience. What they were really talking about was the 250 years of ongoing warfare between expanding American settlement and the native peoples who were already living on the land. That is 250 years spent in racial conflict of the most brutal nature.
How we dealt with race in another way was the single greatest threat to the existence of our nation for its first century, too. Slavery tore the country apart, literally. But many Americans turn away from that reality, too.
You can still find history teachers who spout the old saw that the Civil War wasn't about slavery; it was about "state's rights." Rights to do what' To hold humans in bondage because of the color of their skin, that's what.
The Army has a well-deserved reputation for providing opportunity to all its members, based on their abilities, not their family trees. But, while for white Americans it is easy to talk about being "colorblind" and to preach that the best system is one that never considers race, we kid ourselves when we think we have already reached that point.
I was guilty of that self-deception, too, until I married a very smart Asian lady 21 years ago. I have grown sensitive since then to the many ways, both intentional and not, that people demonstrate their preconceived notions about those of other races.
Think the Army is colorblind' Ask any of your African-American, Asian, Native American or Hispanic co-workers whether they think so. I guarantee they will have a long list of experiences that demonstrate how far we still have to go.
Everyone, from every race, tends to generalize and label others - based on what they have been taught and based on what they have seen in their own narrow experiences. It is only human to do so. We all need to keep an eye on our attitudes if we are to make sure our actions don't drift into habits we know are wrong.
That was the gift of Martin Luther King Jr., I think - he made us look at ourselves. Sometimes we didn't like what we saw, but the country ended up better for the process.
Monday should be a time for the nation to pause and take inventory, on a personal level, of how we think about and treat those around us.
It shouldn't just be another day off.
David W. Kuhns Sr. is editor of Fort Lewis' Northwest Guardian.