A new American Story comfortably shared by all has been the subject of a half dozen former columns exploring why we need one and how we might go about it. One thing is certain, a new American Story lifting up our highest ideals must be woven into a fabric of appreciative relationships connecting the individual stories of each of our peoples to form a narrative able to endure into the centuries ahead.
We had an American Story that ran in serial form for two hundred years, but it’s reached the end of its useful life. Widely known through oral and written lore, the story celebrated the heroic European settlement of America, the triumph of the War of Independence, the writing of the Constitution, the westward push to realize our manifest destiny, the unpleasantness of the Civil War, the cowboy West, industrial might, and how we won two World Wars. It introduced the middle class American Dream with a side serving of Cold War victory.
The problem: it was a white man’s historic fiction built on real events with real outcomes, embellished to be uniformly virtuous and heroic. The truth it told is worth celebrating, but its embellishments cover a multitude of sins. Most egregiously, it either ignored the equally important stories of black slaves, American Indians, and unwanted immigrants, or it crudely romanticized them. The rewards of the middle class American Dream were reserved for white men (and some women) who were deemed to have earned the right to them. Non white Americans were systematically excluded while the old story denied that any were excluded by anything other than their own inability or unwillingness to do the necessary hard work.
A new American Story must include previously excluded stories, which means there must be open ears and hearts to listen to them. Because they are human stories, they will be embellished with virtuous heroes overcoming the unvirtuous enemies surrounding them. Nevertheless, the truth they tell will be worth celebrating by all who will listen. That’s what it means to build appreciative relationships between them. There are examples of how that can happen. The stories of Irish and Italian immigrants are a case in point. They were among those excluded, often violently, from access to the rights and privileges America claimed to offer. Writers, singers, actors and activists milled the grist that enabled them to tell and retell their own stories in the popular media of the day, until they entered the American narrative to be celebrated as among those who helped build the nation. It took decades, but it happened. That they were Europeans helped. It wasn’t the same for Jews, even though they too were Europeans; a majority white Protestant public was less willing to listen to them. Nevertheless, thanks in part to movies and radio, their presence in the American narrative was eventually accepted if not celebrated. The same can’t be said for Blacks, American Indians and Asians. They had stories to tell, and told them, but white America chose not to listen.
Story tellers long ignored or demeaned are unwilling to let it continue, and a majority of white Americans have become more willing to listen. Moreover, story tellers from each race and ethnicity understand that building appreciative relationships between them will create strength not easily resisted. Nevertheless, a significant number of white conservatives intend to do everything in their power to preserve the old American Story, and believe any attempt to change it will eviscerate the very core of what it means to be American. They can’t do that in a democratic America of rapidly changing racial demographics, and the refusal of non-white Americans to be silenced. So their best bet is to use their remaining power to restructure our political system along the lines of the old Confederacy in which a thin veneer of democracy covers entrenched autocratic oligarchy. A minority though they may be, they’re backed by big money, are politically astute, determined, and sense they may be on the cusp of victory.
How are they to be prevented from having their victory? By a commitment from the majority of Americans to a new American Story that brings our long held democratic ideals into reality for all of our peoples. Scholars and journalists have written much on the subject, but don’t have needed mass media appeal. Story tellers who know how to capture the attention of an inattentive public are needed: writers, singers and actors producing high quality, widely circulated articles, movies, t.v. shows, and social media content that celebrates the stories of each of our peoples, their histories, the roles they have played in our past, and the gifts they are offering to our future as a democratic nation living into “e pluribus unum.”
A previous Country Parson column told the story of Polynesian Voyaging Society, its first voyaging canoe, Hōkule’a, and the upcoming Moananuiākea voyage to visit all the peoples of the Pacific. It’s the work of weaving a new strand into the story of us. Another example is the work of the Arlington House Foundation telling the story of all the people who lived and worked on that estate, slave and free. Their work involves a cooperative effort of white and black descendants of the Custis-Lee family along with the free black Syphax family. Yet another strand is being woven by the museums and schools of historic Jamestown, Yorktown, Williamsburg, and Ft. Monroe that are bringing to the fore the stories of the region’s American Indians, and the African heritage of the first blacks to be enslaved in the English colonies. They are added to the already well known stories of early European settlement, and the wars that swept to and fro over the region. Similar work is taking place all over the country.
What’s missing is a way to make these stories widely known to a public that doesn’t know and won’t know unless it comes to them as the best of popular media. Will it happen? We shall see.