A New Birth of Freedom

You have to really, really cling to an anti-historical ideology not to be excited today. I am currently in the ballroom of the 112 S, Michigan Avenue building, the 1908 Illinois Athletic Club by Barnett Haynes & Barnett of St. Louis (with a major remodeling in the 1910s?) where I am watching, along with a couple hundred other SAIC faculty, staff and students, the Inauguration.

Indescribable emotions. The only Chicagoan ever elected President. Perhaps the first preservationist – he was known for his support of preservation in the Illinois General Assembly and Michelle Obama was on the Commission on Chicago Landmarks. The first President of my generation after years of being the shadow of those Baby Boomers. Not to mention the whole African ancestry thing. So nice to finally put the lie to race, that artificial construct. Do you know that in the famous Supreme Court case upholding segregation – 1896’s Plessy v. Ferguson – they couldn’t even tell Plessy was black by sight? I remember the excitement of electing Harold Washington Mayor of Chicago 25 years ago. I felt proud then and I feel proud now. Pride is a human emotion based on association, not biology. This Spring I am doing a series of community tour designs in various Chicago neighborhoods and one thing I have always noticed about people in communities is how they feel personal ownership and pride in their community history – even if that history had no direct connection to personal “heritage.” I remember being in Miami at my first National Trust conference 17 years ago, being auctioned off at the Preservation Action auction as a guide for a tour of Chicago’s Black Metropolis, complete with brunch at Gladys’, now sadly gone. This is my history too, and I know I will find that ecumenical outlook among the community activists we will be working with this Spring. I get excited about all sorts of Chicago history, about all the layers of history in these streets.

Do you think it’s just me? I get proud of places I have adopted, from Leeds to Weishan, and I boast about them. Maybe it is an American thing, a nation born as an idea more than a place, because the place was contingent and fugitive, even perhaps for the first Americans who came 14,000 years ago, and then for the denizens of Europe and Africa who followed more than 13,000 years later, framing a nation without a heritage, without a land or a race really, without all those artificial constructs the Enlightenment was promoting in order to grease the skids for capitalism and industrialization. A paradox, really, a nation founded on Enlightenment ideals that had no roots and struggled to make the sort of artificial roots the Enlightenment was promoting. Heck, Plessy v. Ferguson was a twisted attempt at those roots. How exciting to be here in a time and place to witness the historicity of an idea; the culmination of a promise.

I am fond of saying that all ideology is wrong, because it is static and history is dynamic. But there are ideas that motivate and inspire and have agency in history. They exist on both sides, those pushing us toward peace and unity and those pushing us toward division and hate. It is so very wonderful to see the good ideas arriving on the stage of history and the humanity that made this possible. Here he comes.

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