Being American Means Reckoning With Our Violent History

Ken Burns / The Washington Post
Being American Means Reckoning With Our Violent History Filmmaker Ken Burns. (photo: Justin Altman/PBS)

I’ve been making films about American history for more than 40 years. In all of those years, there’s something central that I’ve learned about being an American: Veneration and shame often go hand-in-hand.

Today, however, I fear patriotism is presented as a false choice. It seems that for many, to be patriotic is to remember and celebrate only our nation’s triumphs. To choose otherwise, to choose to remember our failings, is thus somehow anti-American.

But it is not so simple.

When the National Parks Service opened its 391st unit — the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site — the site became the first and only to include the word “massacre” in the title, a reminder of the Nov. 29, 1864, attack on Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho people that was misrepresented as a “battle” for nearly a century. In the video above, I reflect on the legacy and contemporary resonance of this massacre.

Being an American means reckoning with a history fraught with violence and injustice. Ignoring that reality in favor of mythology is not only wrong but also dangerous. The dark chapters of American history have just as much to teach us, if not more, than the glorious ones, and often the two are intertwined.

As some question how to teach American history to our children — and even question the history itself — I urge us to confront the hard truth, and to trust our children with it. Because a truly great nation is one that can acknowledge its failures.

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