A Letter by Bill Burton
mpu | September 16, 2021
America is often described in glowing terms after a phrase like, “for all its faults…” As if that disclaimer is enough absolve our actual faults. It’s not. And it is in that spirit, of understanding our history of achievement, democracy, innovation, and tragedy — faults and glory — that I tell you with confidence, that America is the world’s best hope, and an idea worth fighting for.
Over the course of this past year, I got myself an account on ancestry.com and have really dug in on our family history. It’s been a little confusing trying to keep the names and relationships straight — but meeting all of these new relatives over the course of this last year has been incredible.
For example, I found your Polish Great-Great Grandpa Simon on the manifest of the ship he came here on in 1913. The German ship, the SS Wittekind, sailed for the US when he was 30. He made his way to Buffalo where he would get a good-paying job, and raise his family with your Great-Great Grandma Lucy. Grandma Lucy, by the way, had plenty on her plate when Grandpa Simon went off to that job, taking care of your great aunts and uncles, Lokadija, Stanislawa, Stella, Bernice, Sophie, and the baby, your Grandma Laura.
And then there is your Great (x6) Grandpa Jacob Boyers who fought in the Revolutionary War. He was a hero. He was captured by the British as a POW, escaped, and would fight in the Battle of Yorktown under the command of General George Washington and Marquis de Lafayette.
But not all of the chapters I discovered have storybook narratives.
On the issue of the Revolutionary War, then there is John Nettles who also fought in that war. As part of his compensation, he received 640 acres of North Carolina land — on which he would enslave your Great (x5) Grandma Louisa and many others. Following a war to secure the freedom of our nation from England, our new government literally gave him land upon which he would amass immense generational wealth, on the backs of your people who came before you. To give you a sense of how close your connection is, Grandma Louisa married Grandpa John and their daughter Ella, was the grandmother of my grandfather. I keep John Nettles’ will on my desk – in it, our ancestors were passed down to his heirs, listed alongside livestock and pieces of furniture he left them as well.
Your Great (x5) Grandpa Nelson — who was indeed counted as 3/5’s a man by the federal government — was a black farmer who would eventually live in Upstate New York in the mid-1800s. He was successful enough that his son Oscar was able to attend Syracuse University as one of its first black students. Oscar became an entrepreneur who opened his own notably successful catering business in Buffalo.
They built. They rose out of the depths of our nation’s shame, and they constructed a good life for their families and a legacy that endures. It is what makes our family’s story so American — because as a country, when we are at our best, we build. And there are tragic errors and extremists who pop up with the worst of intentions — but those things are only part of our story. We are who we are because of the bravery those who came before us demonstrated in the bleakest of circumstances. You are the heirs to their courage. Which is a good thing because we’re going to need it.
Jill Lepore writes in her profound work on American history, These Truths:
On January 1, 1863, sometime after two o’clock in the afternoon, Lincoln held the Emancipation Proclamation in his hand and picked up his pen. He said solemnly, “I never, in my life, felt more certain that I was doing right than I do in signing this paper.”
In South Carolina, the Proclamation was read out to the First South Carolina Volunteer Infantry, a regiment of former slaves. At its final lines, the soldiers began to sing, quietly at first, and then louder:
My country, ‘tis of thee,
Sweet land of liberty,
Of thee I sing
It took white politicians, and black leaders, and a bunch of folks of all kinds to make progress on that day. It took the broadest swath of Americans to defeat evil in World War II, to get to the moon, to give every American — of all races, men and women — the right to vote. And it will take the majority of us who want progress to stay in this fight to push back a minority of extremists who want to push us into our violent and destructive past as opposed to the vibrant future I believe in my heart that we can have.
So as we face off to a future where the extremists are making their voices heard, and the people who are getting attention are the ones who are screaming the loudest, we have to keep up the endless effort to build instead of destroy.
We were a far from perfect union when we started, but it will only continue to become more perfect if we continue to build, together.