America: Yours, Mine and Ours – Pt. 1
Part One: Yours, Mine…
One of the things I hoped for when Michelle Obama spoke at the Democratic convention, was that she would introduce people to the America that she came from, and that was the setting of her story. One of the biggest shames in the campaign – aside from the fact that political realities required this intelligent, accomplished woman to effectively bite her tongue for the last couple of months – is the lack of any honest discussion about the reality that we don’t all live in the same America. It’s one reality that both progressives and conservatives must grapple with between now and November, and beyond
Delivered on a night that carried the theme “One America,” her speech should serve as a reminder that if we are to be America, we have to first acknowledge that what we have are three America’s: yours, mine, and ours.
In speech after speech at the convention, love of country was invoked. Hillary Clinton spoke of reclaiming “the country we love.” John Kerry declared “you don’t decide who loves this country.” And Michelle Obama, after having to stay silent for so long, had to step on to the stage Monday night and declare what shouldn’t have been questioned in the first place: “I love this country.”
And then she spoke of the America she loved, the America she grew up with – the America that she saw get up every morning, get up, struggle, and triumph, just like children in families across America right now. Just like I watched my father sometimes work two jobs to support us, pushing forward despite facing discrimination, and going to night school in an effort to extend his education and become an even better provider.
Right now, children like I was and like Michelle Obama was are growing up in a different America. Not an an America where people own seven homes, but where more and more people are losing theirs to foreclosure, and in neighborhoods darkened by blight – encroaching where it had once been pushed back – as their neighbor’s homes are foreclosed upon. They’re growing up in an America where some who still have them will find it harder to heat their homes this winter. And not just because of the rising cost of fuel, but because their employers – attempting to stay ahead of the rising cost of doing business – have cut full-time employees down to part-time or implemented part-time layoffs in hopes of cutting payrolls.
They live in an America where parents who aren’t merely underemployed may be among the growing numbers of the unemployed, and where the employed are increasingly insecure, concerned that the reality of globalization makes it likely their jobs will be shipped overseas. Theirs is an America in which stimulus checks are long since spent and their temporary effects faded, leaving behind the reality that household incomes haven’t grown during our so-called economic boom. Despite that, in their America people still spend ever more on on basic necessities like household utilities and groceries; where more and more families rely on food stamps, and where those food stamps buy less and less, leaving a growing number of families facing “food insecurity” – a condition we used to call “hunger.”
They aren’t likely to fare much better at school, where rising food costs have hit school lunches, leading to more families requesting reduced lunches. And even them, some can only look forward to school lunches four days out of five, as more schools cut back to four-day weeks in an effort to save costs. In their America, grandparents are chipping in on back-to-school bills, to help defray costs. That is, if they can. Some grandparents may be too busy working, as they’ve put off retirement to deal with falling home values and rising. Some grandparents are facing bankruptcy, due to increasing medical bills.
Theirs is an America where prescription drug costs and health care costs are cutting into stagnant wages, and where people tap into their savings accounts, home equity and credit cards, going into debt to pay for health care. Those 47 million without health insurance, contrary to popular belief, pay $30 billion collectively for health care – and typically get less than they pay for when it comes to the quality of that care.
It’s a world away from the America where the rich have gotten richer in the past seven years, but just around the corner from the America where the poor have indeed gotten poorer, and more of them crowd into poverty-stricken neighborhoods – reversing a trend of upward mobility that began in the previous decade and ended around the time this one began. It’s light years away from the America where and income of $5 million qualifies as “rich” and $250,000 annually is solidly middle class, but down the street from the America where wages are decades behind prices. And it’s nowhere near the America where a CEO can keep a “compensation package” worth over 18$ million, even his company loses $841 million and requires a tax-payer funded bailout. It’s light years away from the America where the economy is basically sound, but smack in the middle of an America full of “whiners” squeezed by that same economy, and most say it’s getting worse.
Of course, the concept of “two Americas” isn’t new, but it doesn’t merely speak to economic injustices and inequality. There has been more than one America for as long as there has been an America. Sojourner Truth gave voice to it in her famous “Ain’t I a Woman” speech. W.E.B. Du Bois named it when he wrote of a “twoness of being” in Souls of Black Folk.
As I’ve written before, I grew up in – and still reside in – a different America than the one that my friends grew up in or that even my next door neighbors reside in. I grew up knowing, because my parents knew and knew that I needed to know, that I lived in a different America than my white classmates; one where I couldn’t get away with the same things they might get away with, and where I could expect harsher punishment if caught because of my race. I reside today in, and am raising two African American sons in, an America where I am still held suspect because I am an African American man; and where they most likely will be held suspect too.
It’s an America where a woman I’d spoken to on the phone several times in a previous job exclaimed aloud upon meeting me, “I didn’t realize you were black. You’re so articulate!” And because I’d grown up in the America I grew up in, I could answer her “Is there some reason I shouldn’t be?”, without anger or resentment, and even with a smile, and get my message across. It’s an America where the host of a baby-sitting co-op social we attended after our oldest son was born assumed that, because my son was (a) African American and (b) had two gay dads, that (c) he must have been a “crack baby.” That time, my spouse spoke up while I was silent with rage.
My America is one where a friend of ours – whose wedding we attended, and with whom we celebrated when he and his partner adopted their son after several disappointments – was turned away from the hospital emergency room where his husband lay suffering a brain aneurysm. He was told that the hospital wouldn’t give him any information or allow him to see his husband until he could show legal proof of their relationship, because he was “not net of kin.” He drove all the way home to retrieve the documents – will, advance directives, medical powers of attorney – and all the way back to the hospital, not knowing if his husband would be dead or alive when he returned. He was lucky. He got the chance to see his husband before he passed away days later. Bill Flanagan and Robert Daniel weren’t as fortunate. Neither were John Crisci and Michael Tartaglia, or Janice Langbehn and Lisa Pond.
Because of those stories, my America is one where my family does not travel without those same documents – wills, advance directives, and medical powers of attorney – as well as our children’s birth certificates and adoption decrees. (We started carrying those documents after Oklahoma passed a law banning recognition of adoptions by same-sex couples, and carry them still even though a federal court overturned the law.) My spouse and I each keep copies of all these documents in our desks at work, just in case. Even with those documents, there’s no guarantee our relationships as a family will be recognized if we’re somewhere far from home, but we’re better off with them than without them.
Just down the street, my neighbor – whom I told the story of what my friend went through – lives in an America where she walked into a hospital when her husband was rushed to the emergency room, and said just three words to hospital staff: “I’m his wife.” In response she got – not a request for documents or proof of their relationship – three words as well: “right this way.” I don’t know, but I’d hazard a guess that – in their America – my neighbors probably don’t travel with their marriage license at hand, and probably don’t need to.
It’s not an America that Michelle Obama inhabits, but neither do she and her husband deny it’s existence – or insist upon the primacy of their America. Probably because they know there’s another America that considers them “uppity.” And coming from a white, Georgia congressman, that word should carry all the old historical implications. Born and raised in Georgia, I’m hard pressed to believe Rep. Westmoreland – who grew up in Georgia during the 1950s – had never heard the term used in a racially derogatory sense and had no idea just how his comment would be heard.
I’ve never heard that term used in a racially derogatory sense. It is important to note that the dictionary definition of ‘uppity’ is ‘affecting an air of inflated self-esteem — snobbish.’ That’s what we meant by uppity when we used it in the mill village where I grew up.
A white man who grew up in Atlanta in the 1950s never heard of a “uppity nigger”?
Well, I was raised by parents who married in 1955, and lived in Georgia almost all of their lives; parents who grew up in the Georgia of the 1930s and 1940s, where the country’s last mass lynching took place in 1946. They grew up in an America even more different than the one I grew up in, and almost certainly different than the one Rep. Westmoreland grew up in; where an entire social system was dedicated to keeping them, their families, and their communities “in their place.” Or, more succinctly, to keep them from getting too “uppity.” That dog-whistle is easy to hear, if you’ve had a lifetime to recognize its tone.
I’ve heard it before, and I hear it still. That’s my America.
To hear all of the above, you might not believe that I love it – and even question whether or not I do – but I do. When I am proud of it, it is because of the times it lives up to its promise, and at other times in spite of its failure to do so. Sometimes I am less proud of it than at others. But that is the context of my America and my loving it.
Too often, when some of who have seen America fail to live up to what it promises to be on paper – and seen it finally coaxed and cajoled doing so after some time – give voice to that experience, first our love of country is questioned. Then, soon after, we’re told how to love America.
Main thought. Hillary Clinton is not Barack Obama’s problem. America is Mr. Obama’s problem. He has been tagged as a snooty lefty, as the glamorous, ambivalent candidate from Men’s Vogue, the candidate who loves America because of the great progress it has made in terms of racial fairness. Fine, good. But has he ever gotten misty-eyed over … the Wright Brothers and what kind of country allowed them to go off on their own and change everything? How about D-Day, or George Washington, or Henry Ford, or the losers and brigands who flocked to Sutter’s Mill, who pushed their way west because there was gold in them thar hills? There’s gold in that history.
John McCain carries it in his bones. Mr. McCain learned it in school, in the Naval Academy, and, literally, at grandpa’s knee. Mrs. Clinton learned at least its importance in her long slog through Arkansas, circa 1977-92.
Mr. Obama? What does he think about all that history? Which is another way of saying: What does he think of America? That’s why people talk about the flag pin absent from the lapel. They wonder if it means something. Not that the presence of the pin proves love of country – any cynic can wear a pin, and many cynics do. But what about Obama and America? Who would have taught him to love it, and what did he learn was loveable, and what does he think about it all?
Another challenge. Snooty lefties get angry when you ask them to talk about these things. They get resentful. Who are you to question my patriotism? But no one is questioning his patriotism, they’re questioning its content, its fullness. Gate 14 has a right to hear this. They’d lean forward to hear.
Most often, this comes from someone who doesn’t live in our America. And of course, whether they know it or not, they are really telling us how to love their America, demanding that it be our America, and that we love it their way. Not to put too fine a point on it, but do note what the examples from Peggy Noonan’s Wall Street Journal column – the Wright brothers, George Washington, and Henry Ford among others – have in common. And then ask why it is preferable that Barrack Obama get “misty-eyed” over them instead of Americans whose strivings made his life and his candidacy possible, or by Michelle Obama must get “misty-eyed” over the same rather than the father whose strivings made it possible for her story to happen?
And why is it assumed that love of that America cannot be commuted to the America that made possible the strivings of so many, strivings that lead to not only to civil rights movement, the womens’ movement, and all the other progressive movements that – when others were “standing athwart history yelling Stop!'” – pushed of forwards into a present that has seen historic candidacies not dreamed of at the nation’s founding?
In one sense, Noonan is right, it’s not actually the patriotism of progressive Americans that’s being called into question. It’s the content of that patriotism that’s questioned by some because its context is not their America. What’s demanded, in the guise of questions about flag lapel pins, is what Michael Berube once astutely defined as contentless patriotism.
I’m familiar with Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.S.A.,” of course. We all are – it’s been inescapable for twenty years. Or so I thought. It turns out, instead, that I somehow have managed to escape hearing the intro and the first verse until just this past month, when the song was used as part of Jamie’s fifth-grade graduation video (as the background music for his school’s visit to Fort Robideau). That’s no doubt because, as a paid-up member of the latté-drinking liberal cultural elite, I tend to avoid social occasions and gatherings in which the song is played and sung along to.
And needless to say, I think the song is odious almost beyond measure. That’s not because I’m a paid-up member of the latté-drinking liberal cultural elite who sneers at my fellow citizens’ simple, heartfelt expressions of patriotism; it’s because the song’s version of patriotism is completely contentless. Two verses and three choruses, and Mr. Greenwood couldn’t find a single reason to love the U.S.A.? Yeah, yeah, I know, pride, pride, freedom, freedom: “I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free.” But free to do what? To fire employees without cause, thanks to the at-will employment doctrine? To abolish the estate tax? To hold up a sign saying that Matthew Shepherd got what he deserved? Or to protest foolish wars, march for civil rights, and support the right of kids with Down syndrome to be educated in regular classrooms where they can go to visit Fort Robideau with their nondisabled peers? “God Bless the U.S.A.” doesn’t say, and that’s what makes it such a perfect emblem of a certain kind of right-wing contentless patriotism, the kind of patriotism that supports the troops by flying flags from cars while supporting a President who leads the troops off to needless slaughter and then cuts their veterans’ benefits. Had Greenwood said anything about that freedom – “I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free of all taxes on my estate of $36 million,” or “I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free to fight for the right to register Mississippi’s black voters in the face of murderous right-wing opposition” – one imagines that his song would be a good deal less popular.
Less popular because an honest account of my America or yours calls into question the context of someone else’s? In that equation, whose America has both authenticity and primary? Or are there as many ways of being an American and loving America as there are Americans, each as authentic as the other? Must one – and only one – have primacy?