"I, too, am America."

In February, I mentioned that the Smithsonian Institution would be opening the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. on September 24.

At the opening ceremony this weekend, President Obama gave a stunning address, the complete transcript of which is available at the Washington Post. Here are just a few excerpts:
As Americans we rightfully passed on the tales of the giants who built this country, who led armies into battle, who raged seminal debates in the halls of Congress and the corridors of power. But too often we ignored or forgot the stories of millions upon millions of others, who built this nation just as surely; whose humble elegance, whose callused hands, whose steady drive helped to create cities, erect industries, build the arsenals of democracy.

And so this national museum helps to tell a richer and fuller story of who we are. 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 activist seeking to overthrow that status quo; the teacher or the cook alongside the statesmen. And by knowing this other story, we better understand ourselves and each other. It binds us together. It reaffirms that all of us are American. That African American history is not somehow separate from our larger American story; it’s not the underside of the American story. It is central to the American story. That our glory derives not just from our most obvious triumphs but how we’ve rested triumph from tragedy and how we’ve been able to remake ourselves again and again and again, in accordance with our highest ideals.

I, too, am America.

The great historian John Hope Franklin, who helped to get this museum started once said “Good history is a good foundation for a better present and future.” He understood the best history doesn’t just sit behind a glass case. It helps us to understand what’s outside the case. The best history helps us recognize the mistakes that we’ve made in the dark corners of the human spirit that we need to guard against. And, yes, a clear-eyed view of history can make us uncomfortable. It’ll shake us out of familiar narratives, but it is precisely because of that discomfort that we learn and grow and harness our collective power to make this nation more perfect.

...This is the place to understand how protest and love of country don’t merely coexist, but inform each other.

...We are large, Walt Whitman told us, containing multitudes. We are large containing multitudes, full of contradictions. That’s America. That’s what makes us go.That’s what makes us extraordinary. And as is true for America, so is true for the African American experience. We’re not a burden on America or a stain on America, or an object of pity or charity for America. We’re America. And that’s what this museum explains.The fact that our stories have shaped every corner of our culture.

...The very fact of this day does not prove that America is perfect, but it does validate the ideas of our founders. That this country born of change, this country born of revolution, this country of we the people, this country can get better. And that’s why we celebrate it, mindful that our story is not yet done, mindful that we are just but on a weigh station on this common journey towards freedom. And how glorious it is that we enshrine it here on some of our nation’s most hallowed ground.

The same place where lives were once traded, but where hundreds and thousands of Americans of all colors and creeds once marched. How joyful it is that this story takes its rightful place alongside Jefferson who declared our independence; and Washington who made it real; alongside Lincoln, who saved our Union. The GIs who defended it. Alongside a new monument, to a king, gazing out toward, summoning us towards that mountain top. How righteous it is that we tell this story here.
There were a lot of great photos taken at the event. Perhaps the most talked-about was this image of First Lady Michelle Obama hugging former President George W. Bush.

Many people will have many different reactions to that photo. What I feel when I look at it is the hope that our former president has learned something in the time he has known the Obamas. Has softened, in some way. Has seen a need his particular life never obliged him to see before.

What I know for certain about it is that it captured First Lady Michelle Obama's warmth and decency.

And then there is this image of President Obama hugging Congressman John Lewis.

I don't even know how to put into words what I feel when I look at that image. It is a visiblized story of history, so profoundly intimate. I feel overwhelmed by its import, and called urgently by its promise.

What a day for this nation.

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