By John Krull TheStatehouseFile.com INDIANAPOLIS – About 90 miles south of where I live, two centuries worth of my ancestors lie buried. My mother’s people settled in the hills between Scottsburg and Salem around the time of the War of 1812, before Indiana was even a state. Of hardy Scots-Irish stock, they worked their way […]
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INDIANAPOLIS — About 90 miles south of where I live, two centuries worth of my ancestors lie buried.
My mother’s people settled in the hills between Scottsburg and Salem around the time of the War of 1812, before Indiana was even a state. Of hardy Scots-Irish stock, they worked their way to the hills of what was to be southern Indiana from the Carolinas up through Tennessee and Kentucky.
They settled in the Hoosier state, dug themselves into this rolling earth and earned a hard living through sweat and determination.
Often, when life or work takes me south, I travel over the well-worn roads to the old cemetery. Stopping there reminds me of the things that endure, the truths that are solid as rock.
On the Fourth of July, our great national holiday, we Americans often focus on the more hopeful aspects of our country’s saga — the spirit of near-ecstasy F. Scott Fitzgerald captured at the end of “The Great Gatsby”:
“For a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.”
Because we like to see our national narrative as a march of triumph, we tend to forget that most American family stories start at a point of despair.
Unless one is Native American, the ancestor whose fate brought most of us here either opted to come to America because life was brutal somewhere else or, in the case of African-Americans, because they were seized and dragged in terror from the homes they knew.
Because we want to see our story as a joyous one with a happy ending, we like to overlook the fact that our tales all too often began in dread. Hardship rather than hope motivated our ancestors to test cruel oceans and try to plant new life in an unknown earth.
My mother’s people are but one example.
Members of a Scottish clan that wagered on the wrong side in one of the British crown’s brutish succession struggles, they found themselves transplanted to Northern Ireland. There, in a poor country, they lived as both irritants and outsiders, sometimes tolerated, never embraced, most often despised and rejected.
Three brothers — one of whom was my direct ancestor and shares my first name — fled to the colonies to begin again because they believed their lot could not get much worse on this then dark and unsettled continent.
Nor was their time or that of their descendants easy after they landed here.
They had to scramble across a vast landscape to find a place they could call their own. The land upon which they settled was fertile enough to lift them out of poverty, but not by much. Once there, they had to survive the cataclysms of war, civil war, recession, depression, personal travails and various natural disasters.
Struggle followed struggle followed struggle.
That is what draws me back to this family cemetery again and again and again — this dearly-bought knowledge that the true value of this country is not the stuff of swagger, but the humble virtue of endurance.
There is great strength in the truth my blood speaks — that, again and again and again, our story began in despair, but, through unstinting labor, we made it something else.
A new beginning.
A fresh chance to pursue happiness.
We know difficult days in this country now.
But we have known difficult days before.
We endured then.
We will endure them now.
The challenge before us is the same one that confronted our ancestors, that confronts every generation of Americans — transforming despair and hardship into possibility and hope.
We Americans must do what those who came before us did and discover America all over again.
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students. Send comments to [email protected].