The Messy Majesty of America

Oct 09, 2012 | Updated Dec 08, 2012

When my grandmother was dying of cancer I pulled out my tape recorder. Her life story unfolded like a trusty map annotated with Xs over hidden traps and circles around secret pleasures; worn with creases; warm from being folded in a back pocket. Mary Catherine Stokes was a Depression baby, raised in part by her own grandmother, who'd had the strength to leave a husband who confined her. My grandmother's grandmother moved to a white-stooped Baltimore brownstone after leaving her husband, and worked "in service" for a white family who let Mary Catherine study with their children. An ace student, but poor, Mary would graduate in the top echelons of her high school class but not be able to afford college. By the time she was eighteen she was married. By the time she was nineteen, she was a mother.

Cab Calloway performed at the big high school dance in Mary Catherine's day, an era filled with style and panache and trouble and heartache. Her stepfather worked at the steel mill, back when a man could make a solid living with his body. Her mother, much to her chagrin, was a numbers runner. The kitchen table was a place of conversation and commerce, petty gambling and neighborhood connection. By the time I knew my grandmother's mother she was old and frail and tame. But back then, Great-Grandma Emma was a woman with large appetites for adventure, which didn't always mesh with having a family. My grandmother Mary, as she told me many times, always had a baby on her hip -- one of her own siblings when her mother went out to play. I can imagine her standing there as a child, a heavy toddler against her hip, looking out into a horizon which she knew was bigger than her beginnings.

My grandmother's story is an American story through and through. She had six children and then pushed her way into a workforce that offered no path of least resistance for middle-aged black women. She stood up to racial discrimination in her workplace; was blacklisted from promotion for seven years; and emerged with honors and citations for her valor.

When I think of my grandmother, I think of the messy side of the American Dream. Romanticization of the past is a fool's game, a divertissement for the weak of spirit. We cannot, and should not, turn back the clock to antebellum or the wars against Indians; to eras where women could not vote and slaves were forbidden to read. Closer to the moment, why should we dream of white Christmases where girl-children were told that the power of their gaze would lead them down the path to a shameful pregnancy, while the young men were exhorted to pursue sexual explorations? (Or when women's jobs were categorized separately in the classifieds' than men's?) Any time a nation or a people pit one group's happiness against another's, heartache will follow.

With all this in mind, it makes perfect sense that the mantle of Commander in Chief would eventually pass to a man who challenged Americans' notions of Americanness. The man in the Oval Office is the descendent of a slave... via his Caucasian mother and ancestors who passed from blackness to whiteness long ago. He's an emblem not just of diversity you can see in the skin, but that which lies beneath. As the scene in Invisible Man hints (with the drops of black paint blending without apparent impact into a vat of white) we are all our other. American identity is predicated upon a quiet absorption of the narratives unfolding around us.

America isn't perfect, and I love it still. I've touched the soil in almost all of the fifty states. In Alaska, a young Inuit leader told me about the winters where for months no car could reach his people, and the impact distance learning was having on their prospects. In Arizona, people at Tea Party rallies framed a politics of wounded desire for better times, in ways I didn't always agree with but listened attentively to. In Utah, a divorced Mormon woman told me about why she cherished her faith, even though she felt a certain sting of judgment at her marital status. I can remember their faces and their places.... the thin powder of snowfall on my windshield and the blistering desert sun. This nation's body is majestic terrain, whether naked or scarred by highways and clothed in buildings.

How much of our lack of political harmony comes not just from ideology, but the lack of contact among the citizens of this vast nation? How many of us feel siloed in our communities of choice? Having traveled around the world, I know no culture is flawless. Instead of seeking out jingoistic confirmation of our superiority, perhaps we Americans can embrace a loving consciousness about where we're succeeding and failing. We citizens can act as parent-shepherds of our nation-state, steering it back towards harmonious growth rather than driving it towards fear and inequality.

It's time for a turning in this country. We're growing from adolescent into adult, from a powerful nation convinced of its invincibility into a powerfully grown nation which knows the harshness of war and terror and joblessness -- and still rises to create and innovate. We have stripes on our back, but that should not sap our determination to find our way. Instead, we have to root down and look for the new commonalities that can bind our polyglot, polytheistic, avaricious and ambitious society together.

So when we are in the throes of another election year, and we feel the need to retreat to our false sense of aloneness, let us remember we are part of a grand experiment. Compared to the cultures of Europe, Asia, and Africa, the American admixture is still wet clay. We can shape it, or be stuck in it. We can choose, and we can dream, as my grandmother did. My grandparents' dreams of achievement, of living fully in the world, reshaped our family's destiny. Like it or not, in America we're all family. All of our dreamings are not the same, and not equally weighted with influence. Yet if we think we can de-couple ourselves from our friends and neighbors, or even from our perceived enemies, we're stuck in childish notions of our nation-state, not the beautiful and messy reality at hand.