Secretary Lonnie Bunch on Healing a Divided Nation

We must use the lessons of the past to help our country grow and move forward

artist Robert Duncanson depicts the promise of America.
Chosen for the 2021 inauguration, this 1859 painting by the African American artist Robert Duncanson depicts the promise of America. Smithsonian American Art Museum

This country has witnessed many moments of bitter disagreement: the earliest elections of our fledgling nation, when the democratic structures of freedom and self-government were still open questions; the election of 1864 during the Civil War, a referendum on the principles of liberty, equality and basic dignity; the 2000 election of President Bush, hinging on 537 votes and a Supreme Court decision. In each of these elections, no matter how contentious, both sides accepted the result. This is how a democracy moves forward.

On January 6, after a long morning of work, I took a break and turned my head to the television. I could not believe what I saw. An armed mob flying the Confederate flag had taken the Capitol, defaced the building and attacked Capitol Police. I knew the history; I knew that no large group had occupied the Capitol since the British did in 1814. This was an unprecedented threat to our democratic system.

The appalling violence that claimed the lives of five people was an assault on our highest institutions and our most sacred values: the constitutional right of the American people to self-determination. As a historian, I have always felt that my responsibility is to give hope, to use the lessons of the past to help our country grow and move forward. In that moment, I had difficulty believing the idea that the arc of history bends toward justice. How could we move forward from such violence and turmoil?

As I have grappled with this question over the last two months, I have found optimism in the continued resilience of the American people. In moments of reconciliation and the shared recognition of the urgency of this moment. In the work of colleagues across the Smithsonian who help our country remember our shared values, shared heritage, shared hopes.

On January 20, first lady Jill Biden chose Landscape with Rainbow, by Robert Duncanson, from the collections of the Smithsonian American Art Museum as the 59th inaugural painting. Perhaps the most well-known African American painter of the mid-19th century, Duncanson painted this landscape on the eve of civil war, expressing a hope for peace, a vision of an America that could be.

Once again, our country has reached an inflection point. Will we embrace the principles of justice, equality and liberty? History teaches us democracy is only as strong as our continued resolve to fight for it. We cannot wait for the moral arc of the universe to bend toward justice: We must work to bend it ourselves.

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This article is a selection from the March issue of Smithsonian magazine