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"the land that never has been yet" - Langston Hughes
For the last several nights we’ve listened to the sounds of fireworks exploding in the distance, the noise a constant for hours, sending our dogs into fits and raising the house’s general anxiety level to eleven. I once loved fireworks but these days they feel like violence.
And the rockets red glare, the bombs bursting in air, gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.
I’m always bewildered to see American flags flying. I understand some people believe in American democracy. Some even believe in American capitalism. But not me. And I don’t live in hope that our country is redeemable. Redemption suggests restoration to some previous innate virtue. Instead I have confronted the reality that America is lost, it has ever been thus, and it will likely always be. But I believe we, as a people, can heal.
When I was in Chicago several years ago for seminary, I read Ta-nehisi Coates’ Between the World & Me. I was visiting family over a weekend between classes and I listened to the audiobook while taking walks through the backroads of Illinois where I grew up. Summertime in Winnebago county is the very word bucolic. It is my innocence, my ancestors, and fills me with nostalgia for a time that likely only ever existed in the movies but somehow lives in my memories as if it really happened. As if it really happened here, as if it really happened to me.
The truth is that it did, and it didn’t. Coates reminded me of this as I walked along. I built my memories in that place with the help of some actual events plus a lot of wishful thinking, Disney movies, and what I can only identify now as the willful ignorance of white supremacy.
“The forgetting is habit, is yet another necessary component of the Dream. They have forgotten the scale of theft that enriched them in slavery; the terror that allowed them, for a century, to pilfer the vote; the segregationist policy that gave them their suburbs. They have forgotten, because to remember would tumble them out of the beautiful Dream and force them to live down here with us, down here in the world.”
Ta-nehisi Coates, Between the World & Me
Walking midwestern country roads in August is like swimming, the humid air so thick you are nearly soaked before you get half a mile. But it’s familiar to me. After two decades living near the Pacific Ocean, I walked almost blissful to be choking on the heat once again. I smiled and signaled to the farmers as their tractors lumbered past, the way my dad taught me, popping my two fingers gently off the side of my forehead. The farmers signaled back in kind. Among the corn and the wheat, the white picket fences and tire swings, the grain silos and big red barns, I leaned into gratitude. This place was my place, this land my land.
Even as I thought it, I knew it was a lie. The land wasn’t really my land, it belonged to the tribe for which the county was named, the Winnebago. After committing genocide, colonizers stole their name pretending to memorialize them. But the Winnebago are still here. For millennia they were a small tribe but mighty, numbering about 25,000 while stewarding what became southern Wisconsin and northern Illinois. In the 17th century colonizers poisoned them with smallpox and by the time the U.S. government forcibly displaced them— first to Iowa, then Minnesota, then South Dakota—there were only 150 tribal members left. They made their way to Nebraska and have been fighting for the government to honor the treaties ever since, to honor the promise that land would be set aside for them.
This land is their land.
So why did I still so easily fall into the trap of the American Dream? Coates’ voice on my headphones was my medicine that day, laying bare the awful truth of my reverie. The beauty of that old moldy cornfield crumbled like dust. I’ve been an addict my whole life so I know how it feels to go unconscious. I know how it feels to willfully get high on lies. And so much of addiction is just nostalgia for the one perfect high that never was. The colonizers who poisoned the Winnebago are the ones who made this land my land. They made that old home place a Dream for me. We celebrate them on the 4th of July. They are my ancestors.
And the Dream they made, the vision of bucolic middle America, it’s a nightmare for me, too. As a white woman I am socialized to fight for the nightmare that oppresses me. I’m conditioned to get high on the Dream. When we extend the vision of those backroads, when we unfold the full picture, I’m in the kitchen pregnant and wearing an apron. Am I happy there? Who cares. My grandmother is in that kitchen with me and I am told that to question the Dream is to question her life, her choices, and everything she passed down to me. I am told to question the Dream is to question my grandma’s love.
“Plunder has matured into habit and addiction. The people who would author the mechanized death of our ghettos, the mass rape of private prisons, then engineer their own forgetting, must inevitably plunder much more.”
- Ta-nehisi Coates, Between the World & Me
My dad died in September and as we maneuvered a broken and abusive American health system to bring some semblance of peace to his last days, my ability to get high on the Dream died along with him. I have decided that my ancestors, white or otherwise, don’t want my allegiance to that old putrid Dream. They don’t want me wandering those creepy cornfields in some haze. The people who tell me not to question my inheritance of Whiteness clearly never met my grandma. She would want me to change things.
So I won’t celebrate the lies. The sound of fireworks reminds me of guns and bombs and violence and destruction because this is what they are meant to symbolize—the rockets red glare and the bombs bursting in air. Fireworks aren’t just a party trick. They are meant to remind us of war.
I was not surprised when I read about the shooting in Highland Park yesterday. I am no longer surprised when the Dream is exposed as a nightmare. There is no place that is so bucolic, so affluent, so idyllic in its projection of the Dream that it can protect us. America has created this nightmare and it is everywhere. The willful ignorance of white supremacy bring us to this place again and again. And we keep insisting on celebrating the lie while the ones in control must inevitably plunder much more. We are the only ones who can stop them. But too many of us are busy getting high on the Dream.
In his poem Let America Be America Again Langston Hughes called America “the land that never has been yet.” Yet. Hughes tells us, it yet could be. But I am wary of that way of thinking. It always seems to pull me back in to the monstrous Dream.
Instead I mourn for America. And I refuse the lie of exceptionalism at the heart of our celebrations of liberty and freedom. When we strip it away to see what America actually is, and that none of us are free or safe and never have been, we see we are bound to one another. Our liberation is bound together. We are threaded in a web of existence, wedded together in this tragedy, woven into the fabric of a terrible story.
But there is another America, one that exists beyond the Dream, one that has always existed. It is an America that doesn’t align itself with false monuments but tells the truth, the real history. And like all addicts who want to heal, it seeks to make amends. And as it heals it celebrates not the resilience of white men in 1776 but the resilience of all of us who came before them and all of us that have survived them, all they displaced, enslaved, oppressed, tortured and interred.
I don’t celebrate 1776. I celebrate the resilience of the murdered and displaced since 1492, the resilience of the enslaved since 1619, the resilience of the interred of 1942, the resilience of those who’ve been marching since Stonewall in 1969, and all those who continue to march today for human rights, for peace, and for an end to the American culture of violence. I take my ancestors who need healing and I identify the ancestors who choose liberation and in this moment here together we seek to be healed.
America never was America, not really. It never will be. But I believe there is something better, something more than the constitution, more than declarations of liberty and independence. And I think it already exists. Liberation is happening all around us if we look for it, if we choose to reject the lies and the violence and see what’s real.
Lets choose it together, the truth and the resilience, the liberation and the healing. And lets celebrate that instead.
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