The recent grand opening of the National Museum of African American History in Washington, D.C., was a much-needed moment of national unity and self-reflection. In the highly partisan capital of an increasingly polarized nation, Americans of every race, creed and party paused to acknowledge and celebrate a part of our history that, in the words of President Obama, “has at times been overlooked.” That will be much harder to do now given the fittingly prominent position the museum occupies on the National Mall and in our national imagination. “This national museum helps to tell a richer and fuller story of who we are,” the president said during his opening remarks. “It helps us better understand the lives, yes of the president, but also the slave, the industrialist but also the porter, the keeper of the status quo but also the optimist seeking to overthrow that status quo, the teacher, or the cook, alongside the statesman. And by knowing this other story, we better understand ourselves and each other.”
It is no secret that mutual understanding is in short supply. In spite of our common progress, the country is still beset by the consequences of our original sin: lingering racial prejudice and outright bias, and deep distrust between Americans of different races and between large swaths of our citizenry and those charged with protecting and serving them. Still, in spite of it all, Donald J. Trump’s claim that African-Americans “are absolutely in the worst shape they've ever been in before” belies the hopeful and prosperous reality. While we may not have reached the mountaintop, we are a long way from the deepest valley. That much was obvious during the opening ceremonies for the museum, when the first African-American president of the United States was joined onstage by the 99-year-old daughter of a Mississippi slave. Ruth Bonner, her back arched by age, her heart filled with youthful determination, joined the president in ringing a bell to inaugurate the museum, reminding every teary-eyed observer of Martin Luther King Jr.’s injunction to let freedom ring from every mountainside.
The occasion also afforded an opportunity to see that endangered species, bipartisanship, in its natural habitat. The photo of a tender, affectionate embrace between George W. Bush, who signed the legislation creating the museum, and Michelle Obama, the first lady, went viral. "It's a great photo that demonstrates genuine bipartisanship," said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. "At one time they were political enemies, but they came together for a good cause. In the midst of a nasty election season, people are hungry for anything that can unify us."
The truth is that people are always hungry for anything that can unify us. That is, in fact, the story that the new museum tells. This is especially important to remember during those times when the social fabric seems especially frayed. “Politics is an expression of our compelling need to live as one,” Pope Francis said on Capitol Hill last year, “in order to build as one the greatest common good: that of a community which sacrifices particular interests in order to share, in justice and peace, its goods, its interests, its social life.” In other words, e pluribus unum is not simply a motto. It is our reality as well as our common destiny.
The editors and staff of America mourn the passing of Dennis M. Linehan, S.J., an associate editor of this review from 1995 to 2009, who died on Sept. 23 at the age of 74. Father Linehan’s byline did not often appear in these pages, but his dedication to his work informed every issue he helped to edit. He was a thoroughly decent soul whose quick wit and encyclopedic mind made him a valued and cherished colleague. R.I.P.