Not so long ago, we had a spirit of freedom rooted in our traditions. In a radio address delivered the evening of December 7, 1941, Eleanor Roosevelt declared, “We are the free and unconquerable people of the United States of America.” No one, not Japanese Americans or anyone else who lived in this country, doubted her affirmation. No one imagined that a free people could ever be conquered.
If you want to know the secret of our freedom, it is that we all come from somewhere else. Yes, we have a Bill of Rights and a Declaration of Independence, but these documents simply translate into law and elevated language what is written in our hearts and our history. We all came here to be free. We cannot remain free if we decide to deport people because we think they are not one of us. They are one of us, because they are here.
No democratic society that turns away strangers, that turns people away because they do not belong, has ever survived as a free people. These groups always suffer conquest or civil conflict. Either way, they lose their freedom. What is the most visible sign of this pattern? Walls go up to hold fear at bay, to protect those who believe barriers can protect them. What happens to societies that build these walls? They fail.
As we think about history, and why we value freedom, think about your family’s stories. A family lives through time, yet it has no generational memory besides written accounts. The family bible, passed from father to son and mother to daughter, used to record births and deaths. We do not have family bibles any longer. We still have families, we still have bibles, and we still have oral traditions, but written accounts of a family’s experience are rare. They are the only way to hear voices of those who have died.
I have always had an interest in history, yet I did not think to ask my grandparents about their parents. We all have four grandparents, and eight great-grandparents. My grandparents would have been happy to tell me stories about their youth, about their families as they grew up. I only needed to ask. I did not. My grandparents and great-grandparents did not leave written accounts. Consequently we cannot recreate their experiences, either as oral history or in any other way.
Every family ought to find a way to record stories about its members. Family history so often begins and ends with family trees. These records are valuable enough, but we do not know who those people are. They have no identity or humanity. We are happy we have entries in a family tree – those individuals have escaped anonymity – but is that all we want for our forebears? Is that all we want from them?
I should not think so. We want to know how they saw themselves, how their parents and children saw them, how their grandparents and grandchildren saw them. We want their stories, embedded in their family’s triumphs, troubles, and everyday routines. You cannot reconstruct people’s histories from their names, or from dates recorded on a gravestone. Immortality within our families requires that we record our experiences.
My father used to say, “After we die, we continue to live until the last person who knew us dies.” I disagreed with him: “Not true. If we write down our experiences, we live indefinitely, to all generations.” That holds not only because we preserve the content of our lives in these stories, but also because we preserve our voice. This voice, mysteriously interwoven and projected in the tales we relate, communicates our personality to readers who care to discern it. Our eyes light up our souls for those who meet us while we live. Written work does the same for people who read our words after we die.
That is true whether we write poetry, songs, memoirs, or any other accounts we might call literature or non-fiction. This urge to create must be tied to an instinct for immortality. We want to leave something behind. We want others, especially those who follow us, to know we were here. We don’t want to leave mere graffiti on the back of a building – “Steve was here.” We want readers to know us, as we live on earth, as we live in memory, as we present ourselves in our creative and literary work. Is your story worth telling? Of course it is.