Lately, I’ve been picking up fear for America’s future from family, friends, people on social media, and my own heart that goes panicky every time I read about the latest political bombshell. I hate wallowing in my own fear of war, inequality, and political turmoil. I hate fearing disagreements with my fellow Americans about politics because such disagreements in 2017 has become equated with shaming each other, name-calling, fights, and blocking someone on Facebook. Why does it have to be this way? And more importantly–will this country be divided forever?
This year, I took a course called AP U.S. History–a college level American history course offered for high school students interested in the subject–and in passing the AP exam for early college credit. Besides learning that I could write my hand off daily in essays about the Cold War or Lincoln’s legacy, I also gained a new perspective about today’s American politics and social issues through studying the conflicts of the past. What I learned is that despite almost constant conflict, we are still here. Our country is alive even through anything and everything has gone down in past decades.
Here are some important lessons I learned through my AP U.S. History class that will hopefully give you hope for America’s future, with acknowledgment of her past.
Lesson #1: America Has Always Been Divided.
During the 2016 election, I had it etched into my brain that this was the worst time of political divide in American history, ever. Or at least one of the worst. It was easy to brush aside the Civil War and other big conflicts of the past and eat up the media’s constant negativity surrounding the election. It was easy to get it stuck in my head that 2016 was the worst of the worst; that America, even with her rocky past of wars and oppression, had never been this bad before. This election was catastrophic. It was going to divide us all forever.
Boy, did I gain some perspective. Even with all I’ve studied before about American political parties and conflicts, my class offered new information upon political movements and divides I had never heard of. Some of these divisions are even similar to today’s.
Think about it: America began with Loyalists vs. Patriots. Then came Federalists vs. Anti-federalists. Thomas Jefferson joins the scene, and soon it’s Federalists vs. Democratic-Republicans. The North vs. South is always remembered as a time of conflict. Slave owners vs. Abolitionists. Back country farmers vs. city elite. The immigrant vs. the Nativists. The Whig party, the Jacksonian democrats, the populist party, some flares of socialism; the list is endless. All of these past-Americans living through previous periods of division had one thing in common: they weren’t afraid to speak up for what they believed in, to try to shape the America they wanted to live in. And at the end of the day, that drive and desire still continued today is what makes America wonderful. Until we all can’t agree on what makes America wonderful.
Don’t worry for too long, though. What feels like a never-ending war between Republicans and Democrats will eventually see compromise, peace, and change. I truly believe it. Every American that came before us lived through unrest, political turmoil, and a divided country on some front. Whether about slavery, immigration, government policy, or any other important issue, America has continued on, and usually down the right path in the end.
We will live through these political trials. This country already has done so for 241 years.
Lesson #2: No President Is or Ever Will Be Perfect.
There is no such thing as a perfect leader. Mostly because they’re just as human as you and me, though likely leaning more into the ‘superhuman’ category based on their job of running a large and powerful country. Some presidents capture the people’s hearts more than others. It’s a difference of politics; what one voter thinks is a horrendous leader is another person’s champion. Democracy is the most important thing here–with our built in right being able to choose our leader freely as a country.
Lesson #3: The Jim Crow Era Was Horrific and Not Too Long Ago.
One Monday morning, my history teacher introduced us to the next era we would be studying by showing us images of African Americans being lynched, hanging from a tree. I sank back in my seat and took in the awful images: an African American boy hanging from a tree with toddlers playing right under it, families posing in front of the body for their “postcard,” the burnt corpse of Emmett Till who would be 76 today.
This was the Jim Crow era, the decades of blatant, violent, terrible racism that took place after the Reconstruction era through the 1960’s that was protected under law. I had only studied slavery and segregation in depth before, but a whole power-point of horrific images, in-depth descriptions of anti-African American laws, and a character analysis of Zip Coon (the pervasive and mocking “comic relief” African American character common in minstrel shows during the era) was eye-opening. This reminded me that blatant racism is not just a distant memory but continues to be an ongoing battle. There’s obviously been ample progress, but today’s African Americans have the absolute right to protest racism and protect their rights. They have the absolute right to be wary of the recent resurgence of white supremacy, laws that attempt to curtail voting rights, and the public rallies held by groups supporting it, including the Ku Klux Klan.
America has to remember the brutalities of the Jim Crow era. America has to acknowledge it and stop brushing it aside. All of us have to return and reflect on these dark and violent times, not just to reopen America’s bleeding past but in an attempt to stop her from bleeding even more in the future. Racism and race relations need to be addressed by this country.
Lesson #4: America Has Also Always Had a Problem with Immigrants, Too.
America saw spikes in European and Asian immigration throughout its history: the Irish, the Germans, the Italians, the Japanese, and a host of other groups. Each group faced hardships, whether it was the quota system that limited their numbers, restrictive and racist laws, or even containment camps. America has always struggled with immigration. Some Americans are against letting ‘the stranger’ into the country purely because they’re the stranger. Others have economic or social reasons. Studying such blatant trends in immigration and the American people or government’s response to them gave me a new perspective on the travel ban, the Syrian refugee crisis, and general immigration policies. What I’ve learned is that each group of immigrants in American history has experienced oppression and later integrated into society. Each group added something positive to our culture. I can’t predict what will become of this era’s American immigrants, but I can only hope that our society learns from the past and carves out a new future of tolerance and acceptance on all fronts.
Lesson #5: America Usually Gets It Together In the End.
At the end of the day, even with conflicts and dark spots, America has much from the past to celebrate: the civil rights movement, progressive leaders, diversity, victories in tough conflicts, and the beautiful and surreal truth of being a country that was founded on free speech and the principals of justice and democracy. If you, like me, are afraid of the political, social, and economic future of America because of current political divisions, do not fear. Do not give into the hate or twitter wars or ignoring your neighbor’s opinions because they may differ from yours. Do not give into the idea that this is the worst era of American history and that nothing will get better. If my AP American history course taught me anything, it was that America has been surviving and thriving over the years due to those who stand up against injustice every day, accept their neighbor’s differences, and work for change in their country.
Be that person. Be that American.