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A nation is defined by its aspirations and accomplishments

Recalling What is Right About America

A nation is defined by its aspirations and accomplishments –
By Robert Charles – – Sunday, December 21, 2014

Everywhere, we suddenly hear words of division, difference, recrimination. Suddenly, America is Ferguson, Missouri writ large. But are we? Are we not still Americans, first? We harbor 316 million different dreams, each born of one spirit. Peace and love, freedom, respect and being “one people” are all hard stuff. What’s new? It has always been so. Isn’t that what America is really about? Isn’t that what makes us Americans, that belief in the possible?

Is trust hard to build and maintain? Sure, but it always has been. Still, we are the exceptional people who have shown it can be done, adversity notwithstanding. We have learned over two centuries that progress requires patience. Ask Booker T. Washington, Satchel Page, Frank Robinson, Thurgood Marshall, Louie Armstrong or Michael Jackson. But let’s get deeper than that. Ask Mae Jemisim, Stephanie Wilson, Joan Higginbotham or Yvonne Cagle. Now there are some real Americans, the sort we can all pause and admire.

You haven’t heard of them? Well, you should have. Mae was a Stanford graduate, majoring in chemical engineering, fluent in Russian, French and Swahili, and a doctor of medicine from Cornell University. What else? She served in the Peace Corps and was an avid aviator. Oh yes, something else. A black American, she was a Space Shuttle astronaut.

So was Stephanie — three missions on the Space Shuttle Endeavor. Joan? Another astronaut, on the Shuttle Discovery, an expert in electrical engineering with 308 hours in space. And Yvonne? Also an astronaut, a biochemist and a doctor of medicine at the Johnson Space Flight Center. They are all women and all black Americans. They are also incredible Americans.

What’s the point? It’s worth taking time to think about the hope, achievement, promise and exceptionalism they each represent. Because they are women and black by heritage? Yes, and because they are American. Did they overcome incredible obstacles? You bet. Did they face more obstacles than others? Almost certainly. But more to the point, they believed in the possible — for America and for themselves.

They are heroes who risked all for their country — no excuses, no half-measures. They wanted and found windows of opportunity, then flew through them. They must have had beacons in their lives — mentors, teachers and parents who cared, communities around them and people who reminded them on more than one occasion to keep believing in America and in themselves. And that is America. They realized their dreams, and made us all proud as they did.

What do their stories, and millions of others like them, tell us? One thing clearly: Look up and forward, not back and down. They looked at insecurity, defeatism and difference, and stepped beyond them all. Against impossible odds — since becoming an astronaut is a 15 in 2,000 proposition — they said bring it on. They saw the sun behind the clouds, locked on and showed can-do spirit.

Who are we at our best, if not them? While we have our differences, we remain one people with a common belief in the possible. We live in an exceptional place, founded on an exceptional document, built on courage, spirit and heart. So let us stop being defined by others, or letting others redefine us as smaller than we are. False leaders divide for their own purposes, some by geography and others by religion, skin color, attractions, distractions and disaffections. Some want us to divide from each other on the basis of where we are from or where our parents hailed from on this blue globe. But that is a misunderstanding of America.

We are defined by the desire to aspire, reinforced by the inspiration of others and by how we inspire them. That is the stuff of which Americans are really made. That is how we have all defied odds, reached toward the heavens in our own ways, leaped higher and bridged gaps thought unbridgeable. That is what we must do again.

Only by daring to trust, risk and believe can we live up to our legacy — that “anything really is possible.” The media tell us it is easier to be against than for, deconstruct than construct, blame than assume responsibility, grow frustrated than grow patient, attack than forgive, deflect than to lead. Yet we know that is not who we really are. We are forward movement, which only comes with believing.

As the call to divide echoes, just let it fade. Instead, let’s remember Mae, Stephanie, Joan and Yvonne, four great Americans. We cannot all become astronauts, but we can see beyond our differences and lift each other up. If not now, as we count our own blessings in the Christmas season and resolve to do better, then when? If we can lead from the heart, leaders will follow. That is how it works in America.

• Robert B. Charles is a former assistant secretary of state and former staff director and counsel to U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert.