On Friday, October 8, 2021, President Joe Biden issued the first-ever presidential proclamation for Indigenous Peoples’ Day. The second Monday of October, long celebrated as Columbus Day, will be recognized henceforth as Indian Peoples’ Day. In addition, President Biden disclosed plans to restore territory to two national monuments on land that Native Americans consider sacred.
President Biden’s gestures and words have more power than may be perceived immediately, for he has begun the process of the courageous telling of real United States history. Biden writes, “Today, we also acknowledge the painful history of wrongs and atrocities that many European explorers inflicted on Tribal Nations and Indigenous Communities.” That statement is the first attribute of the courageous telling of history. To be completely honest, it is the first move toward facing the fear of the truth of wrongdoing with the choice of admitting the act.
Biden said, “It is a measure of greatness as a Nation that we do not seek to bury these shameful episodes of our past, that we face them honestly, we bring them to the light, and we do all we can do address them.” This statement, a second attribute of courageous telling of history, acknowledges responsibility and consideration of redress.
The telling of United States history has become a major aspect of the culture wars, the struggle between two sets of conflicting cultural values; in other words, the struggle between lies and truth. In this case, it is the conflict between the courage of strength and the cowardice of fear.
Cowardice in telling history is defined by fear. The fear of telling true United States history has been so frightening to perpetrators of that history that even children's books, including the story of the abuse suffered by six-year-old African American Ruby Bridges when she integrated a school, have been banned. This is cowardice at its worst.
History can be told with courage or with cowardice, and the differences are obvious. Cowardice in telling history demonstrates fear, fear of acknowledging atrocities of the past; cowardice cannot act morally and take responsibility.
Cowardice in telling history never apologizes; rather, it creates false stereotypes of its victims -- primitive, blood-thirsty savages -- and decries their standing in the way of “civilization” and “progress.” Do civilization and progress justify genocide against a people? From five to 15 million humans lived in North America when Columbus arrived, and by the late 19th century, there were fewer than 238,000 left.
Cowardice creates a myth like the “discovery” of America, a vast land inhabited over tens of thousands of years by the indigenous peoples; and the newer myth of a “positive, heroic character” like the explorer Christopher Columbus.
Most critically, cowardly telling of history is incomplete history, the true story apparently too shameful to tell. Cowardice in history-telling omits and distorts true history. It manipulates facts; it deludes; it creates false reality.
Like all lying, cowardice in history-telling seeks validation. The history must appear good and moral in all ways, however much the truth of the story is the very opposite.
Cowardice in history-telling creates phoniness and sets up passion and drama around lies. Presently, the use of “cancel culture” as a fear tactic disallows the truth-telling of United States history.
Thanks to President Biden, however, the process of reporting history truthfully and courageously has begun. Courageous history is complete history; it acknowledges and apologizes for mistakes, and it takes moral responsibility for shameful acts. Most importantly, the courageous telling of history frees us and future generations to learn from past mistakes and to act with determination and integrity to practice the American ideals of freedom and justice for all.
So, what path will America take in telling of its history? Will school children still read from textbooks that provide incomplete and distorted history? Will future generations still be taught about a mythical rather than a true America? We are at a crucial period in American life in which we can choose racial reckoning, which involves the courageous telling of our history, or we can choose racial reaction, which wallows in fear and takes the coward’s way.
Cowards can never be moral.