America, don’t lose your optimism


— History can be a harsh mirror for America.

Before the Civil War our most valuable industries — cotton and whaling — fostered the human misery of slavery and sent men out on floating rendering plants for months or years at a time to hunt down and butcher some of the most graceful mammals that ever lived.

We slaughtered the peoples we found on this continent and followed their Trail of Tears west. We displaced the Mexicans, broke the bodies of countless immigrant workers to build the Erie Canal, the Transcontinental Railroad, and the Hoover Dam. Our first skyscrapers were said to average one death for every story. Our subways and harbors, our tunnels and bridges and factories — all required at least as great a sacrifice.

All this and worse we have done, and now we have infinitely complicated our future by electing the least experienced president in our history. It does no good to turn away from the mirror, even now. We should acknowledge every injustice we have committed because to do any less would be to blot the memory of those who we have wronged. And we must face up to everything that now may be done in our name.

Yet when I think of what America has done for the world, I am hopeful for the future. When we have gone wrong, we have always redeemed ourselves — eventually — and emerged stronger, smarter and better for it. We have learned to invent and constantly reinvent ourselves — our institutions, our customs and especially our definition of who is an American and what that means.

America did not begin with any hold on “exceptionalism.” It has been made exceptional by so many individuals who had no place else to go, who found this country to be their only refuge and who in their gratitude have repaid us countless times over.

“Had we stayed in Europe, I probably would have become a tailor,” Isidor Isaac Rabi liked to say — though the terrible truth is that had his family stayed in their native Galicia instead of emigrating to the Lower East Side of Manhattan, they probably would have been killed.

Determined to become wholly American, avidly reading the works of Jack London, Isidor Rabi scraped out an education even as his teeth were falling out of his head from malnutrition. He would earn his Ph.D. and become a professor, put together one of the greatest physics departments in history at Columbia University, and win the Nobel Prize for his discovery of nuclear magnetic resonance, the phenomenon which would enable us to create the MRI.

Yet the story of that remarkable medical device does not end with Dr. Rabi. A whole string of other immigrants, or the children of immigrants — Felix Bloch, Arthur Schawlow, Nicolaas Bloembergen — would add their own work to Dr. Rabi’s theories and win their own Nobel prizes until the MRI itself was conceived and developed by Dr. Raymond Vahan Damadian, whose family had fled the Armenian genocide. All these remarkable journeys to one critical invention — and to America.

Time and again, the stone that the builders rejected — the people who were not wanted in this country save in the most silent and subservient positions — has become our cornerstone. Dr. Charles Drew, an African American doctor, developed a system of getting blood plasma to the battlefield that saved the lives of untold numbers of Allied soldiers in World War II — despite the fact that the Red Cross bowed to popular ignorance and agreed to segregate blood “by race” throughout the war.

Thomas L. Jennings, the first known black man to earn a patent in America — for a dry-cleaning process — used his profits to buy his wife out of slavery. They both became champions of civil rights. When a police officer yanked their daughter, Elizabeth, a teacher, off a “whites-only” streetcar in Manhattan while she was on her way to play the organ in church, the Jennings challenged the right of companies to segregate public conveyances in court. In 1855, the law was struck down, New York’s streetcars were integrated, and Elizabeth Jennings became the Rosa Parks of the 19th century.

Women were long denied the right to file patents in their own name. Nonetheless, it was a woman, Margaret Heafield, an MIT scientist, who developed the software engineering that got Apollo 11 to the moon and who coined the term, “software engineering” in the first place. It was a woman — Stephanie Louise Kwolek, the daughter of Polish immigrants — who created the fiber that would make Kevlar vests, which to date have saved the lives of an estimated 3,000 police officers. Kwolek never saw a cent from an invention that probably earned her company several billion dollars, but she didn’t seem to regret that.

“I don’t think there’s anything like saving someone’s life to bring you satisfaction and happiness,” she liked to say.

In America, those who have realized their dreams have so often parlayed their success into a cause greater than themselves. Ellen Louise “Nell” Curtis, a fearless young woman who turned herself into “Madame Demorest” and started the mail-order dress pattern business with her husband, used her company to promote the abolition of slavery and women’s suffrage. Her business was one of the very few in 19th-century America to hire large numbers of African Americans, and pay and treat them the same as her white employees.

In America, freedom does not run one way. It is not granted from the top down, or depend on the largesse of the rich or powerful. It runs in every direction, multiplies with each public-minded endeavor we set ourselves to.

The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) is to this day the largest public power company in the United States. It transformed a huge swath of the South and not only brought cheap public power to the region but also produced nitrates to save the soil, restored local forests, creating a vast recreational area, moved local farming and housework into the modern era overnight, and created the infrastructure that made possible everything from the Muscle Shoals music scene to the Huntsville Space Center.

When we think of grand projects such as the TVA, we tend to remember its great men, revered leaders such as Senator George Norris and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. But the TVA was also made a living reality by individuals such as Mary Utopia “Topie” Rothrock, a librarian from Knoxville, Tennessee, who was charged with finding something to read for the thousands of TVA workers back in the pre-TV days of the 1930s.

Rothrock started libraries everywhere she could where previously there were none — in general stores, filling stations and post offices, and in her early “bookmobiles” when absolutely no other space was available. Over 80 years later, Topie Rothrock’s makeshift libraries have now become permanent structures, an enduring legacy to how just one citizen, working in hand with her fellow Americans, could leave a lasting legacy all her own.

I find it impossible not to love such a country.

To be sure, the political movement that prevailed last week in our nation believes in very little of what I’ve outlined above as the best argument for America. They have, quite directly, stated their vehement opposition to the whole idea that this should be a more diverse or multicultural country. They have lost faith in the idea of America as a refuge for the desperate, or a balm for the disinherited, or a place for the disenfranchised to start over.

In their anger and their disillusionment, they would silence what Abraham Lincoln called the mystic chords of memory and reject Martin Luther King’s vision of the beloved community, believing only that a maximized individualism is possible for human happiness.

This is a pity, and it may well become a tragedy. But theirs are convictions that I believe the rest of us can dispel if we truly love our country.

Kevin Baker is a novelist, historian, and journalist whose books include “Dreamland” and the best-selling “Paradise Alley.” His most recent book is “America the Ingenious: How a Nation of Dreamers, Immigrants, and Tinkerers Changed the World” (Artisan Books). Unless otherwise noted, facts here reflect that book’s research. The opinions expressed here are those of the author.