So much violence runs through the stories that the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture tells with elegance, power and depth.

Africans dragged in chains to a new continent. Infants ripped from the arms of their mothers so the women could be sold at auction. The lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till. Fannie Lou Hamer’s testimony to at the 1964 Democratic National Convention. Rosewood. Tulsa. Detroit.

We’re often asked to marvel that slaves and their descendants held onto their humanity despite this onslaught. But what of slave-owners and their descendants? How did they hold onto their humanity while committing atrocities? Or turning a blind eye to brutality? Or growing up believing that as long as you are polite to your "inferiors," it's okay to believe the savage lie of superiority? Those too are questions we should consider.

Violence is a coin we hold as Americans. We can all tap into the resilience of those who suffered. We'll need it to face how we have been shaped by exacting suffering.

"Everyone always wants to be right." When I heard that from a friend from South Africa, which holds a coin similar to America's, I thought of our habit of shutting down anyone who tells a truth that makes us uncomfortable. Of twisting a challenging question into something we can answer with glib contempt. Of insisting on winning at the expense of understanding.

We are quick to indulge in fear and anger. Those emotions distract us from a darker knowledge of ourselves.

Our history is an ambiguous penny we can neither spend nor discard. We have to hold onto it like a talisman: a reminder that asserting our better selves can't be left to chance.