Beginnings are appealing. They beguile with promise and possibility: spring, weddings, the first day of a new job, the first leg of a journey, the first page of a book. Less appealing and more complicated: going backward to find the source of something mystifying or troubling. Rooting around in the past can be dirty, taxing work, especially as the future beckons with its fresh starts.
While working on this “Start” issue, I've rooted around in my own life, thinking about the story I've conjured up about where I came from, where I started. As part of that story, I've become convinced that leaving Hawaii for the mainland and never returning is both why I am who I am today and why I live the life I live. There are other beginnings I could point to as well as many false starts, but I've built much of my identity on the acts of leaving and not returning, and I've made choices that reinforce this identity. To explore what compelled me, but not the rest of my family, to leave, will take yet more digging.
What are the genesis stories, both personal and shared, that we are most reluctant to poke at and challenge for fear of dismantling an entire system of self- and sense-making? I thought about this question as I worked with both the writers of the stories that follow and the Oregon Humanities board and staff on crafting a new vision for the organization, one that identifies equity and justice as key values in our work.
During this time, I also read Ta-Nehisi Coates's much-discussed essay in the Atlantic from earlier this year, “The Case for Reparations.” Coates makes a nuanced and well-supported case that America needs to consider its history as steeped in policies and practices that gave whites supremacy over blacks, and that this history is the genesis of the seemingly unsolvable problems of racial inequity in the country today. Coates writes, “We invoke the words of Jefferson and Lincoln because they say something about our legacy and our traditions. We do this because we recognize our links to the past—at least when they flatter us. But black history does not flatter American democracy; it chastens it.” Going to our origin stories to ponder the “whys,” to look clear-eyed at where we came from and what we've made of ourselves, is terrifying work. But it's work we must do in order to “imagine a new country,” as Coates encourages.
If imagining such a thing seems daunting, consider the care and creativity that we regularly unleash in our lives: We imbue personal events and experiences with metaphorical meaning. We string myriad ideas and feelings into something substantial and real. Daily we make valuable things out of little more than will, work, and imagination: an essay, a family, a life. What more can we make—meaning, sense, change—if we set out together, mindful of but not tied to where we began?
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