Some days I feel, at age 70, that I no longer understand America. That it has morphed, splintered, or collapsed into something unrecognizable.
When I read about weekly school shootings and hate crimes against people who are black, Jewish, Muslim, or LGBT; when I see powerful men in all professions using their positions to sexually abuse women, or watch both political parties catering to their most extreme elements, embracing incivility and fueling a polarization between progressives and conservatives that has hardened into mutual hatred; when I see mass deportations of people who came to America for a better life, or listen to the despair in the voices of people in my millennial daughter’s Generation Y who wonder if they will ever own a home or have financial security; or when I observe the easy tribalism and self-segregation of identity politics; when I reflect on these 21st-century developments, I wonder: Who are Americans? Do we have any values in common anymore? Did we ever?
An American writer—a storyteller—who feels he no longer understands his country or kinsmen is in trouble, especially in a nation as culturally and racially diverse as this one. But it is precisely because I am a storyteller that I can see how our present situation is based on two competing narratives about this country.
In the first and older “official” story dispensed in public schools in the 1950s when I was young, America is a land of opportunity, a shining “city upon a hill,” and the last great hope for humankind. It is founded on the Declaration of Independence’s assertion that “all men are created equal,” and have a right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” This story emphasizes the American “experiment in democracy,” a nativist “exceptionalism,” fairness and fair play, an individualism where one’s ancestry is unimportant, and where upward mobility from one generation to the next is, if one worked hard, assured. Its metaphor is an open window.
But there is a second narrative more ascendent in 2018, one that reminds us that for 244 years America was a slave state, and for nearly 70 years after that racially segregated. That it slaughtered and stole lands from Native Americans, as well as from Mexico, and waged wars of conquest. This is America spelled by radicals in the 1960s as “AmeriKKKa,” a nation the founders (as well as opponents of slavery like Abraham Lincoln and Harriet Beecher Stowe) envisioned as “a white man’s country.” In this story, women were kept in their place by patriarchy while blacks and other minorities faced violence, red-lining, and a systemic victimization that exploited their labor to enrich a mere 1 percent of the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant population. The metaphor for this America is a wall. Today that specifically means a wall along the border with Mexico.
These two stories seem irreconcilable. We also know that, at least in the sciences, most “experiments” fail. But whenever I think about what the future might hold for my 36-year-old daughter and her 6-year-old son, I do see how these two stories about America, each with its own elements of truth, can be acknowledged and even transcended.
Although nearly all the ideals in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution, those two documents that define our secular religion, have been betrayed at one time or another, and continue to be violated today, I think a majority of Americans do hold dear such ideals as fairness, fair play, equality, a strong work ethic, individual excellence, and helping one another. In 1952, in his magisterial novel Invisible Man, which is no longer just a novel now but an American cultural artifact, Ralph Ellison addressed this very question.
For the entire 581-page novel, Ellison’s narrator struggles to understand a cryptic warning given by his grandfather on his death bed concerning how black people should deal with white America: “I want you to overcome ‘em with yeses, undermine ‘em with grins, agree ‘em to death and destruction…” And it is only in the novel’s epilogue that the Invisible Man gains a glimmer of understand about what his grandfather meant:
“Could he have meant—hell, he must have meant the principle, that we were to affirm the principle on which the country was built and not the men who did the violence. Did he say ‘yes’ because he knew that the principle was greater than the men, greater than the numbers and the vicious power and all the methods used to corrupt its name?… Or did he mean that we had to take the responsibility for all of it, for the men as well as the principle, because we were the heirs who must use the principle because no other fitted our needs?”
It is the principles on which America was founded, and not the flawed men, that we and future generations must affirm as shared, common values. And we should also be aware that the principles themselves were originally flawed and imperfectly conceived. They were not static, unchanging ideas fully realized at their conception. Rather, like everything else in this world, ideas or ideals such as equality are historical and, like a novel that must move through several drafts before reaching its full promise and potential, they are constantly evolving. For example, when first presented in the Declaration, the idea of equality was not fully formed in the minds of men; in practice it was restricted to propertied white males. It took a Civil War, then one hundred years later a Civil Rights Movement, to bring forth the full potential in the meaning of equality so that in both its theory and practice it by necessity included black Americans. And in the half century since the 1960s, logically expanded to include women, gay people, indeed, all Americans.
The “experiment in democracy” is, then, a cross-generational task in which our children and grandchildren must continue to refine and bring to greater precision and clarity those principles and shared values on which the nation is founded. This is a slow, often frustrating process spanning centuries. But I have the faith that my daughter and grandson—and yours—are up to this perennial challenge.
Charles Johnson is a MacArthur Fellow and professor emeritus at the University of Washington. His fiction includes Dr. King’s Refrigerator, Dreamer, Faith and the Good Thing, and Middle Passage, for which he won the National Book Award. His new collection of short stories Night Hawks, was released this spring. He lives in Seattle.