I suppose that I have always been one of those people who asks a lot of questions and I don’t always have a filter when it comes to my queries. I remember my mother shushing me on a city bus when I observed the black people huddled in the back and wondered out loud why they all looked so tired and sad. I must have been only about five years old, but I somehow sensed that there was something wrong with the picture that I saw. My confusion only mounted when I later encountered the water fountains and bathrooms labeled “Colored” and “White” in the department stores. I wanted to know who had come up with these strange ideas and why they thought they it was okay. My mom nervously put a stop to my chattering with her response that,”It’s just the way it is.”
One of my favorite tales was the one about the boy who saw that the Emperor was parading naked down the street while the people cheered as though there was nothing strange about the scene. I understood the frustration of the little kid who kept shouting that the Emperor had no clothes and wondered why the adults ignored him. I often felt that those protecting me from difficult topics did not understand that I was not fooled by trite answers.
We just celebrated the Fourth of July, Independence Day about a week ago. We sometimes seem to forget that while our founding fathers were imperfect men, their greatest quality was a willingness to question the way things were done. They created a form of government that they hoped would give power to the people to see problems and then create solutions to maintain freedom. Of course we all know that there were many people left out of the rights and liberties defined in the first laws, but over time our government evolved to include black citizens and women. Eventually those people in the back of the bus who had to use separate facilities when I was a little girl earned the same rights as the rest of us, but still struggled to be fully accepted and respected in our society. So I, along with others, find myself still asking many questions about issues that seem to be out of sync with how our nation should be.
Does that mean that I am not patriotic, or could it be that I am actually concerned with making our freedoms stronger and ever more inclusive? Should we just place our hands over our hearts and ignore the naked problems in our country or would it show more love and respect for our nation to call out things that are unjust? Did our founders intend for us to have blind allegiance or would they have applauded those courageous enough to insist that no single way of believing should be the law of the land?
Over the history of our country we have found the best versions of ourselves when women marched through the streets demanding the right to vote or when crowds joined hands to insist that segregation and voting suppression was morally wrong. The real beauty and strength of the United States is on display whenever people are unafraid to ask why something is happening. We need the voices of people who point out the problems.
I remember when I was a teenager growing up in Houston, Texas we joked that there were two dominant groups of kids, surfers and cowboys. It was a silly way of classifying each other because few actually had surf boards are rode horses. It was our way of delineating progressives and conservatives. When I was in college the labels changed from anti-war to supporters of the war in Vietnam. Society tended to see those who donned uniforms as the real patriots and defenders of freedom, but those who protested what they saw as an unjust war were just as dedicated to saving our country. There were simply two different ways of defining and solving a problem that our country faced.
I’ve read that when the American revolution began only about a third of the colonists wanted to break away from the British Empire. Another third were staunch Loyalists and the remaining people just wanted to be left alone. I suspect that this has been mostly true throughout the history of our country. Perhaps it is true of the world in general. Some people are fervent about holding on to the way things have always been done, others are determined to make changes that they believe are needed, and another group just wants things to settle down again. It is part of our human natures that all too often leads to literal and figurative wars.
There is a push of late to protect children from uncomfortable truths. I laugh at such an idea because my experience has shown me that young people are much more open to honesty. They observe the world with unfettered curiosity. They see things that adults have chosen to ignore. They are overjoyed when their questions are taken seriously and when the answers are truthful.
Our country was fought for and founded by men who were product of an era of enlightenment. They saw that the old ways were no longer working and they risked their lives to create a new way of living that promised more freedoms. They did not create a perfect union. Humans rarely achieve such perfection, but they did set up a system that would allow future generations to adjust to the evolution of the world. They were the original inquisitors who had the audacity to question the king. They wanted a government that would allow different factions and beliefs to coexist. They wanted to guard against monarchical one size fits all decisions about privacy, religion, and the way we decide to live and think. They made a good start, but we won’t keep our republic if we do not exercise our rights to vote and we refuse to learn how to listen to and address important questions.