Let us celebrate what is good about us
By Kamotho Waiganjo
| August 3rd 2014
Anyone who has ever wondered why America, for all its dissensions, celebrates its nationhood including flying flags in their residences in celebration of “Viva America” needs to study its “memorial culture” most epitomised in Washington D.C., its federal capital. Whether it’s the Smithsonian museums or the numerous memorials celebrating its history which populate the DC landscape, most of the American story is told with colour and pomp.
Obviously like all great nations what is celebrated are America’s victories, its heroes and it’s numerous reincarnations. You will not find monuments that decry America’s savagery to the Red Indians or the barbarity of slavery to its Black American population.
To its credit though DC has in the last two years erected a memorial in honour of Martin Luther King and plans to open a museum to chronicle Black American history in one the prime locations of the city, right next to the Lincoln memorial. I am thrilled that America’s first black President opened the imposing Dr King memorial and will get to open the Black American museum. How poetic a coincidence, but then again, maybe it’s not!
Three lessons, weaved from the messages emanating from these memorials, define America. The first, a testament to America’s English roots, is its love of folklore. The best of DC’s neighbourhood memorials records one of America’s lowest moments, the assassination of John F Kennedy. But it is also a testament to America’s gentler, fairytale loving side.
In Virginia’s Arlington cemetery where JFK’s eternal flame continues to burn, Jackie Kennedy’s tombstone is next to JFK despite her submitting in marriage to Aristotle Onassis after Jack’s death. The Jack and Jackie romance, with all its drama, exemplified what America always hopes for its first family and by extension its own soul; that it will be a nation defined by love in family. Even Jackie’s move to Greece could not erode that dream.
The Vietnam War memorial exemplifies another admirable side of the American psyche. By listing by name all the 55,286 soldiers who died in that war, it elevated the critical importance of the individual in American life. Whereas America’s individualism is sometimes mother to its high suicide rates, it is also what has enabled it to soar to great heights. The “pull yourself by your own bootstrap” philosophy has enabled individuals to accomplish so much against great odds, knowing that their country rewards and celebrates them as individuals.
Finally the Lincoln memorial celebrates America’s willingness to introspect and move from a discredited known even if it is to an unknown. President Lincoln was not just the President who “saved the Union” but he was the President who “ended slavery”. In retrospect it seems obvious to us that slavery need to be stopped. But in 18th century America, slavery was the engine of America’s economy and the soul of its social life.
It took a determined President to risk his own life and legacy to direct a reluctant America towards the path of greatness. And it is a testament to America’s capacity to pursue its better side that a century later, a young man from his home state of Illinois would become America’s first black President.
I say all this knowing that this is not America’s entire story; it has a murky wicked side. But that is for another day. What lessons can America’s memorial culture teach a Kenya struggling to come to terms with itself? Firstly that nation building is not an event, it is a process. Even a Constitution does not a nation make. It is learning to continually rise from the ashes that creates an enduring nation.
Secondly, we must tell our own story. Whether it is in the nature of the history books we write, the testimonials we cherish or the memorials we erect we must find ways to celebrate our joint pain and our joint successes as evidence of greatness.
Our current pessimism, though understandable, sometimes blinds us to our numerous achievements worthy of accolade. Even in just the sacrifices of our many heroes there is so much to celebrate! Finally, in telling our story, we must not over-emphasise our murky, wicked side. Others will do that for us quite competently.
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