Let’s get two things straight.

First off, this is who we are.

But just as importantly, this is not who we could be.

I understand the despair that so many Americans are feeling this week. I share the seething anger and profound sadness after watching a sitting American president incite an armed mob to storm the U.S. Capitol attempting to overturn the results of a democratic election. My stomach turned as I saw traitors brazenly waving the Confederate flag in the halls of our Union.

But I disagree with the commentators, including President-elect Joe Biden, who claim that “this is not who we are.” We must be honest with ourselves. This is indeed who we are and who we have been as a nation.

We are a nation, after all, that slaughtered and removed Native tribes to clear land for White settlement. We are a nation that rose to economic power by enslaving Africans by the millions. We are a nation that allowed white terrorists to overthrow biracial Reconstruction governments and re-impose white supremacy after the Civil War. We are a nation (and a state) that torched a multiracial community on Malaga Island to build a tourist resort.

So we should not be surprised that we are still a country where police and politicians see a greater threat from a Black person peacefully chanting “I can’t breathe” than we do from a white man in a “Camp Auschwitz” shirt pushing on the barricades outside the Capitol.

We must look at things as they truly are, not as we wish them to be.

But we also cannot allow the enormity of that truth to drain us of hope. Without hope, we sink into despair and cynicism. Without hope, we shrink from the challenge of building a truly just America. The idea that we can never be better, that America is hopelessly lost — an idea percolating on both the political right and left — is incapacitating, paralyzing, and ultimately destructive.

Our history teaches us hard truths, but it also offers inspiration, stories about the endurance of hope even in the face of overwhelming odds. Thomas Paine writing “Common Sense” to inspire a revolution; Harriet Tubman leading dozens of enslaved people to freedom; Joshua Chamberlain and the 20th Maine Regiment holding the line on Little Round Top at Gettysburg; Fannie Lou Hamer and other Black Southerners risking their lives to vote. These men and women were driven by hope, a sense that they could help build a better America.

And it’s not just extraordinary heroes like Tubman and Chamberlain who inspire us to build the “more perfect Union” envisioned in the Constitution. All around us, there are regular people who help America live up to its best self every day — the parents in my kids’ school who banded together to build a garden and outdoor education center, the Somali women who launched the Maine Immigrant Resource Center, the staff and volunteers working in the broad array of Maine nonprofits that preserve our land and water for future generations.

I know that this may sound hopelessly idealistic at a time when the president and millions of his supporters can’t even accept the results of an election. But idealism is what has driven this nation to its greatest achievements — winning the Revolution, writing the Constitution, abolishing slavery, embracing women’s suffrage, defeating fascism, destroying Jim Crow, protecting our wilderness, exploring space. None of these could have been achieved without believing in American ideals.

I still have faith in America, that as-yet-unseen nation fully committed to its ideals of freedom, equality, and justice for all. That mob at the Capitol can’t destroy those ideals. Now — especially now when it is so tempting to despair — is the time for us to recommit ourselves to the struggle of building a more just, egalitarian, and democratic America.

Perhaps poet Langston Hughes put it best in his 1936 masterpiece, “Let America Be America Again”:

O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where 
every man is free…

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!


Chris Myers Asch of Hallowell teaches history at Colby College and runs the Capital Area New Mainers Project in Augusta.

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