For those of us who love American history, February is an interesting month. The third Monday is a national holiday honoring two of our country’s greatest leaders: George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, both of whom were born during the month. February is also “Black History Month.” And given that our nation is engaged in dealing honestly with our history of racism, the coincidence of both historic threads in the same month is fortuitous, it seems to me. For there is no denying that the ugly stain of racism runs through the history of the United States.
Indeed, racism taints the memory of many of our historic heroes and heroines, including George Washington and Abraham Lincoln Washington owned slaves. His life was sustained by the labor of the human beings he owned. Abraham Lincoln was not a slave owner, and he quite clearly found slavery to be morally repugnant, and yet, still he put the preservation of the Union ahead of freedom for the slaves, and agreed for much of his adult life with those who envisioned the United States as a nation for white people alone. I think that we need to acknowledge the racism of both of these leaders. I think that we need to acknowledge the racism woven into the very fabric of our nation.
And yet, I still love this country, and I still admire leaders from our history like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. And I feel that way, not because our country or these leaders were perfect, but I admire both Washington and Lincoln because, while they were as human as any of us, they still accomplished great things, as has our country. And both Washington and Lincoln showed that they were learning and changing their minds right up until the day they both died, just as our country, at its best, is learning and changing.
Amanda Gorman thrilled so many of us with the poem that she wrote and read at the Inauguration last month. In front of a capitol building built by slaves and that was, just weeks before, stormed by a violent mob largely animated by racism, she said:
Somehow we’ve weathered and witnessed
a nation that isn’t broken
but simply unfinished
We the successors of a country and a time
Where a skinny Black girl
descended from slaves and raised by a single mother
can dream of becoming president
only to find herself reciting for one
And yes we are far from polished
far from pristine
but that doesn’t mean we are
striving to form a union that is perfect
We are striving to forge a union with purpose
To compose a country committed to all cultures, colors, characters and
conditions of man
And I hope this month that we can honestly learn our history—the good and the bad, the noble and the base, the beautiful and the ugly—because it is only in the light of the truth that we find the freedom to be the kind of people, the kind of nation that God knows we have it in us to be.
–Pastor Don Steele