Make America Great, Finally?: The Archeology of White People (Redux)
America has never been great. Including now.
The problem with such a claim is that a blanket statement leaves too much room to discredit the argument, and of course, we must all agree on the definition of “great.”
Large-scale evidence that America has never been great is obvious: slavery, lynching, the Japanese internment, the Trail of Tears, the Tulsa massacre, and the bloody litany of mass and school shootings that characterize America in a way distinct from all other democracies.
At any moment in the history of the US, what can be called “great” for any group of people, when unpacked, can be exposed as the consequence of some other people’s suffering. It has always benefitted the winners in the US to keep everyone’s eyes on the winning so that we can conveniently ignore the necessary losing.
That is what I confronted in the last stanza of my poem “the archeology of white people“:
Ignore the body in the road
we whisper in their tiny innocent ears
Isn’t that golden car spectacular?
In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, America is great for Tom and Daisy, but if we refuse to look the other way, that comes at the expense of Myrtle, ripped apart and dead in the road; of George, dead at his own hand; and of Gatsby, perversely shot in his opulent pool.
This is America: “the wreck and not the story of the wreck/the thing itself and not the myth” (“Diving into the Wreck,” Adrienne Rich).
Or as Langston Hughes’s speaker challenges: “(America never was America to me.)” — the too often ignored voice of those who live the fact of America not being great.
To rally around “Make America Great Again” is a perversion of hope; it is delusion.
Delusion is not the result of a lack of knowledge, but a refusal to listen, to see because you are driven deaf and blind by a fear of acknowledging the truths that refute your beliefs.
The delusion of clinging to guns, instruments of death, as a symbol for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
On social media, I witness this daily — those for whom proof and evidence mean nothing, those who shout the loudest, know the least, and listen not at all.
While there is no credible greatness to recapture in America, I do not deny yet the possibility of greatness. In fact, I can rally myself around “Make America Great, Finally.”
Greatness is certainly a worthy aspiration, although that too requires that we agree on exactly what “great” is.
Let me pose two examples we may want to follow.
Teachers in West Virginia, a right-to-work (non-union) state, have demonstrated a quest for greatness by recognizing and then acting on the power of striking. If citizens would more commonly recognize and then act on the power of mobilized groups with common interests, unresponsive government and political leadership could be eradicated in the name of the greatness we claim to seek.
Students across the US, prompted by Parkland, Florida students, have also demonstrated the potential for the powerless to organize and assert power with the nation-wide walk outs demanding action on gun control. Even before the walk out, student activism had prompted large corporations to change gun sale policies without any policy changes from political leaders.
WV teachers without the legal right to strike along with children and teens with almost no direct political power have demonstrated that power exists where it appears absent and that greatness springs from community and not individual zeal, not necessarily reduced to a zero-sum gain.
The choice in the US does not have to be between Daisy and Myrtle, in fact.
That American dream is only a dream for some because it is a nightmare for many.
There is nothing great about wealth or the wealthy; there is nothing great about coaxing most Americans to develop the grit to overcome adversity.
Great is the absence of poverty, not the presence of wealth.
Great is the absence of adversity, not the presence of grit.
Teachers in WV and students all across the nation have played great first hands.