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Open Letter to President Obama – Inaugural debt of honour

 

Buffy Sainte Marie

President Barack Obama

 

St Albans, England – January 7th 2013

 

Dear Mr President,

I need your help to recognise a deep wrong which we both share: you as an American and President; me as the descendant of English and European race and culture. Recognise not remedy, because the wrong in question is beyond remediation; one of those uniquely appalling events in human history – like the holocaust and of course slavery.

At your first Inauguration, both the fact of your election as the first black President; and the form of celebration you chose, resonated powerfully back down 600 years of injustice and inhumanity. Who can forget the inimitable Aretha Franklin celebrating both your election and the ‘belonging’ for African Americans it represented. In a voice the gift of the angels.

Your second Inaugural offers a unique opportunity to recognise just as necessarily and powerfully, an equally profound historical wrong: and just as in the on-going struggle for equality and justice for black Americans; it’s still going on in the country you now serve. This further recognition of profound injustice is equally more than 600 years overdue

I sometimes ask my English friends if they can name 10 prominent African Americans – in any walk of life. All can; from yourself and other politicians, through entertainers, sportsmen, musicians, singers, even the odd businessman.

Then I ask them how many prominent Native Americans they can name. Usually none. Even if I allow them dead First Nation figures, most get stuck at about 5 – almost every one remembered not from the truths of history but the myths of Hollywood. Mostly profoundly, shamefully false.

My debt? As an Englishman, in my historical education, about three quarters of the map of the world was coloured pink. I was raised to celebrate Empire and Colonial conquest: defer to the Monarchy, and admire the imposition of a British culture and way of life, often under military force, upon nations, peoples and races whose indigenous rights and precious cultures we didn’t try to understand, dismissed and sometimes destroyed.

As a European and an agnostic, with respect for Christian ethics, I cannot read the actual words of the Papal Bull defining the Doctrine of Discovery without a deep sense of shame – human and religious. Equally when I read for the first time in recent years the meaning and basis of the doctrine of Manifest Destiny and its effects in practice on the deep spirituality of the thriving, diverse, precious culture lived by the indigenous peoples of North America for millennia before Columbus – I weep. Bitter, and yes guilty tears.

I am proud to be an Englishman and Briton: how could a countryman of Shakespeare, Darwin, Newton, Eliot, Austen, Hume, Wilberforce, Pankhurst et al not be? And I was born in Thetford, Norfolk birthplace of Thomas Paine. It is precisely the inspirational thought and beliefs of these truly great Britons that demands a critical revision of my jingoistic, handed-down historical perspective just as do the uncomfortable truths of American History and the irremediable wrongs and injustices inflicted upon the indigenous Native American peoples: often in the name at least of ‘Christianity’ and its many tribes.

You now have a perfect opportunity to symbolically set the tone of reconciliation and unity of the modern United States of America and commit the courage of your second administration to face challenging and disturbing truths as a necessary, though not sufficient condition for tackling the many seemingly intractable problems at home and abroad over the next 4 years.

Surely 600 years after the genocide in which the United States was born, endless injustices past and current, broken promises and torn up treaties; it is time to symbolically recognise the courage and honour of the American Indian peoples – alive today, vibrant against all the odds and still, against all their actual experience, believing and trusting that the way to pursue justice and recognition of human rights is through the law and due process – not the barrel of a gun.

And you have your Aretha: my exact contemporary, (Dr) Buffy Sainte Marie has worked tirelessly for her people and indigenous peoples around the world for over half a century, during which time she has also penned and sung 100’s of songs including perhaps the best known anti-war song ever written (Universal Soldier), Oscar-winning love songs and protest songs against an unjust war for which she was banned from US radio. My Country ‘Tis of Thy People You’re Dying is the most heart-rending plea for justice I have ever heard. But her activism and faith in hope defines her: for justice, for her people, and for what is best in America.

She also has a voice to die for, undimmed at 70. This is her America The Beautiful:

There were Choctaws in Alabama
Chippewas in St. Paul
Mississippi mud runs like a river in me
America – Oo she’s like a mother to me
O beautiful for spacious skies
For amber waves of grain
For purple mountain majesty
Above the fruited plain

America, America
God shed his grace on thee
And crown thy good with brotherhood
from sea to shining sea
from sea to shining sea

There were cliff towns in Colorado
Pyramids in Illinois
Trade routes up and down the Mississippi River to see
America – Oo she’s like a mother to me…

O beautiful for vision clear
that sees beyond the years
Thy night time sky
Our hopes that fly
undimmed by human tears
America, America
God shed His grace on thee
Til selfish gain no longer stain
the banner of the free

And crown thy good with brotherhood
from sea to shining sea
from sea to shining sea

 

Use your 2nd Inaugural to recognise the people whose spirit roams the mountains, streams and plains of not just most the powerful, but one of the most beautiful lands on earth. It was theirs: tell them, show them, they belong. They, like African Americans, have waited 600 years to hear it.

 

Don’t let me, them, and yourself down. They have waited long enough.

 

 

Sincerely

 

 

 

(Keith Farman)

 

 

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