Today’s History

The other night I sat nestled in the comfort and security of my home in the western suburbs of Boston, knitting leisurely and listening to the narration of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. The setting is important, because it is ironic.

I have been struck, again and again by the commonalities between the American history described in the book and what I have witnessed and learned, consciously or not, in my own lifetime: the barely restrained persistence of profound racism and gender, class and sexual orientation bias; the growth of power by the elite at the expense of everyone else, masked as altruistic or humane, as humanitarian aid or self-defense; the cloaked status quo dressed up to look like change – resulting in pervasive suffering and often dehumanization of our fellow citizens; the lack of respect for those, domestic or foreign, who don’t look or act like the moneyed power class, and our dismissal of their right and ability to make their own decisions. Specifically now. Today.

There have been many occasions, listening to the book while sitting in traffic on I-95, that I had to repeatedly hit rewind, or even temporarily turn off the sound in order to more fully absorb what I had heard, making mental notes to go back and examine the parallels. Time and time again, I have been momentarily disoriented, as the passages seemed directly lifted from our headlines today.

But this particular evening, I stopped cold as the narrator read a passage from the Langston Hughes’ poem, first published in 1936: “Let America Be America Again.” Its title, parallel in construction to one of this presidential election’s most salient slogans, “Make America Great Again,” was stunning, and its divergence in meaning and intent, even more so.

This has been pointed out repeatedly recently – as used today in 2016 the concept of making our country great “again” urges Americans to improve our plight by returning to the way it used to be at some unidentified past era, as if the pervasive racism, discrimination by social class, gender and sexual identity, and abuse of power we propagate today was any better at that phantom age instead of just being less visible than it is now with Black Lives Matter, Standing Rock, “locker room talk”, bathroom controversy, institutionalized sexual assault and continued military involvement abroad, resulting in catastrophic loss of lives, “ours” and “theirs” – I’m almost afraid to list the atrocities because I’m afraid to (and know I am) leaving out something, many things, many people, much outrageous injustice.

As penned by Hughes in 1936, the concept of returning to our great American roots spoke, with a penetrating sadness, of our democracy, which was still so painfully distant from fulfilling its promise, its dream:

“O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—“

“Again” is used ironically, offset by the “yet”, implying that to be the America that we were in the past is not to go back to some non-existent time or state, but to go back to the dream and the inspiration of what can and should be, in the future. There is profound sadness, but there is profound hope as well.

This is not a condemnation of one party’s slogan or an endorsement of one platform over another. In my opinion none of the candidates currently available to voters have the combination of values, experience and commitment needed right now. Needed ten years ago, 50 years ago, 200 years ago. Tomorrow. As of this writing we do not know the outcome of the election. I’d like to hope for change, but I stop short of hope and all I can do is acknowledge possibility.

As I sit here nestled into my comfort and privilege, which has been paid for by millions before me, I am only just beginning to realize how much I have accepted to be true, and worse, what I have accepted to be right.