“Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed— / Let it be that great strong land of love / Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme / That any man be crushed by one above.”*
The dream the dreamers dreamed. We need America to go in that direction, toward that dream, instead of away from it as we appear to be doing now. This return won’t take politics, or religion, or social activism. Those things, while very good choices, are too easy, and they tend to engender division, as we’ve seen. To recreate the America the dreamers dreamed, we need a new imagining, a new vision, and a new kind of courage. We need to become dreamers, too, or again, or perhaps for the first time.
Here’s a personal story, an anecdote from my own recent experience. It’s a small thing, really, just a quick, almost imagined moment, but it provided one of those visions that linger for their depth and heft, so I’ll share it with you.
Here in my new home I have African American neighbors. Wonderful people. They have two beautiful babies, a fine home, two costly cars in their garage, and, like me, many cardboard boxes from their own recent move into that house. Shortly after we moved in, this neighbor, I’ll call him James, was busy watering his newly laid sod, making sure the grass was carefully tended. Focused on brown spots, he aimed his sprinkler at every section of his lawn that the device would reach. When he noticed me relaxing on my deck, he looked up.
I greeted him. He waved back. We exchanged names, idle chatter, basic family, and life, and work history. Then James returned to his lawn, and I returned to whatever it was I’d been doing.
I watched my neighbor for a while. As I did, the above Langston Hughes poem shimmered in my mind, and I had the oddest thought. I almost interrupted James from his lawn chores to tell him what I was thinking. But I didn’t. He was intent on watering his thirsty sod, and I’d only just met the man, so I wasn’t sure if he’d appreciate the interruption, or my comment, or the source of it. Here’s what I thought: This is the America I want to live in, an America where a successful black man with his own home, and two kids, and two costly cars in his suburban garage can putter around in his yard, his biggest concern being that his grass needs watering. This is the America I’d always envisioned.
From that thought I expanded the dream to the many disenfranchised, marginalized, ignored, and dismissed Americans who may see someone simply watering his lawn, and wonder where her or his own dream evaporated like the sun-kissed mist?
Growing up a child of privilege, American societies quintessential white, male, heterosexual, (recovering) christian, entitled kid, I had to have an active, detailed plan to fail. Despite my tendency to be the classic underachiever, American society was not going to allow me to fall by the wayside, or come up short of whatever dream I might have cooked up. I was told I could be whatever I wanted to be, and I believed it—because, for me, and kids like me, it was true.
There was a cutesy phrase when I was a kid, ‘the world is his oyster.’ I have no earthly idea the provenance of that homely saying, but I sure as hell know why I was its subject. It was entitlement, pure and simple. I may have thought back then, living in my oblivious bubble, that America really was the land of equality, and freedom, and justice for all. But I was living proof that it wasn’t. I could have shot someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue, and… Well, you get the idea. The big difference today is that these glaring differences are being called out. They’re not new, or reactionary. They’re just being recorded.
Acknowledging the entitled part of my personal story doesn’t change much, of course. Any of my black, or gay, or trans, or female, or Islamic, or Latinx friends will read of my feckless, carefree youth, and my facility at success and they’ll say, ‘ya think?’ I never once saw a neighbor lock their car door when I passed by. Never once had a security guard follow me around a store. Never once feared for my life when I was pulled over driving, flashers reflecting in my rearview. Instead, I was always greeted with courtesy, respect, and deference any time I got sideways with a cop, and it happened, believe me. Driving 55 in a 30 zone? Are you serious? Then given a warning? Really?
Did I despair at that moment? Police car flashers blinding me, did I expect my life to fall apart? Did I find myself under arrest, enmeshed in the harsh system, caught up in the gears of process, and procedure, and punishment policy? No. Quite the contrary, and here’s the point: I was always—always—given the benefit of the doubt. Always.
So how do we recognize this chasm in relations, the difference between entitlement and its opposite, an insistence on process at all costs, regardless of how little harm is done? How do we arrive at a point where all Americans are treated fairly, where no one—and everyone—is given a chance to succeed? Where no one is guilty of something the minute they’re born?
Here’s where we start, I believe. We start with a common understanding of what ‘America’ means. What exactly is the definition of ‘America?’
Here’s mine: ‘America’ is not a country. Sure, there’s a bit of real estate involved, and most folks can locate ‘America’ on a map, though having lived in South ‘America,’ I better understand that we need more precision when using the term. Colombianos, Peruvians, Brazilians, Ecuadorians—they’re all Americans as well.
But America—The United States of—is not a country; it’s an idea. A grand idea. It’s the most radical, the most astonishing, the most heart and mind bending idea ever conceived. Truly. When the United States came into being, the concept of freedom, and liberty, and justice for all people was the single most radical and dangerous idea in world history. Yes, these ideas are attached to a plot of land. Yes, the founders conveniently overlooked a lot of folks, including half the populace on the distaff side, all those who owned no property, and all those with skin a shade or two darker than themselves. Yes, many of those otherwise enlightened men—they were all men—owned property that we refer to today as other human beings.
But they got much of the idea down pretty well. That people had a right to certain things, and that those things ought to be available without fear or favor to everyone. That there are laws. That these laws should apply equally to everyone. So, America is not a country; it’s an idea. If we can agree on that, we’ve made a great deal of progress already.
Next: patriotism. Boy howdy, do we get wrapped around the axle on this one! Here’s what patriotism means to me: It’s the ability—no, the responsibility—to root out flaws in American society, and to call attention to them in order to fix them. Protest is the highest form of patriotism. See inequality? Oppression? Injustice? Take a knee, call it out in whatever fashion you choose within legal constraints, and let’s get the problem fixed for pity sakes! Those who wish to sweep things under the rug, or draw attention to some irrelevant diversion, or hide behind the flag simply don’t get this part.
Next: Who ‘belongs’ here, and who doesn’t? The U.S. is the exceptional nation. For the first time in human history, people from across the globe arrived on a small speck of real estate, from every country, culture, religion, with every skin tone, and social perspective, all agreeing to put tribal, and ethnic, and religious, and cultural, and language differences aside to form one nation.
Think of it: People from across the planet have come to the U.S., changing their identity, regardless of how much effort that takes, and despite the real peril that those changes often entailed for them. The fact that most people assimilate to this grand American idea is astonishing. It should be cause for great optimism. When I see people shouting ‘go back where you came from,’ and similarly childish epithets, I think, ‘those people aren’t real Americans.’ With their jingoistic, angry discourtesies, they’re defiling the core concept of what America means, indeed assaulting the very idea of who and what we are.
Those angry, anti-immigrant people are also conveniently overlooking the fact that, at some point in their own past, unless they’re Native American Indians—a specious title indicating that old Chris Columbus was a lousy navigator—their own people arrived on these shores as immigrants, too.
So how do we gather all these ideas into one place, and assemble these concepts into a new vision and understanding of Making America what it should be? We simply return to basic concepts. We explore the documents, and the pronouncements, and the promises we made 244 years ago, and then we actuate those documents in the context of our own time.
The question is: Do we have the courage to make those ideas real, and true, and appropriate for this time, this era in our history? Can we find the courage to live the essence of what those declarations say, and what they truly mean? Does the statement ‘liberty and justice for all’ mean ALL? Or does it not? Do we focus on that simple word all, or do we make exceptions, alter our sacred documents, and live with the consequences? Affirming liberty and justice for all is not a radical idea; refusing to grant those things is the radical idea.
If we have the courage, and if we have the social, and the political, and the collective will to truly observe and practice those founding words, I believe we’ll have a better, more just, and more livable society. Growing up entitled, as I did, might have given me a warm, fuzzy feeling, but I now realize that there was a cost to it, a price to be paid, and I was not the one paying it.
Perhaps it’s time we all look long and hard at just how well we understand the American dream, the idea of America, the contract we live under, and make its simple promise available to ALL, not just white, male, straight, christian kids, so everyone can enjoy the dream that America offers.
If we do these things, we’ll live in the America I wore the uniform defending for 30 years, and we’ll give up the hypocrisy that fuels much of the discontent we sense these days.
My neighbor’s lawn is doing just fine. His concern about the brown spots and weeds is fading as his lawn greens up nicely. If we have the courage to demand that America be allowed to be the dream the dreamers dreamed, I believe we might find ourselves surrounded by people who can tend their own piece of sod, nourish their slice of the dream, make it greener, and pass it along to their kids in due time. This is the America I dream of.
*The Dream the Dreamers Dreamed. From The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, published by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. Copyright © 1994 the Estate of Langston Hughes.