We were an idea before we were a nation. Our borders were of less concern to our founders than a constellation of what were then almost unspeakable notions, like all men were created equal and they had, inherently, certain rights. Those rights were not granted by a state or a monarch or a church, but a gift simply because we were human beings.
That doesn’t mean the founders always practiced what they preached. America is aspiration; its ideals are in motion. Because we came with and practiced a religion that initially excluded other believers and beliefs, because we accepted America’s original sin of race-based slavery, and because we callously rid the countryside of indigenous peoples, we planted on this land our worst angels alongside our better selves. And at the time of that planting, we accepted that women, children and slaves were not fully part of “We, the People.”
Yet in the 19-century, Herman Melville, author of “Moby Dick,” was able to write “We bear the ark of the liberties of the world.” He believed America was the seedbed of a political movement that spread first to Europe and eventually across the globe. All people had a right to be safe and expect due process under the law (life), a right to the freedoms we associate with the first amendments to our Constitution (liberty), and a right to opportunity, work and personal property (happiness). Unfortunately, for every two steps forward, we seem to slide back one and a half.
I am an “American First” advocate, but my America is not the America First of the Proud Boys, of the Charlottesville demonstrators, of xenophobic nationalists. My America is a promise toward which we haltingly move. It is not the America First of people who disparage Spanish-speakers, who suggest some Americans should “go back where they came from,” who twitter-troll women and children for entertainment. My America welcomes the stranger, believes in fairness, thinks telling the truth is a virtue and knows most of us, at some time in our lives, will need the helping hand of someone else.
My America builds bridges, not walls. It offers hope, not fear. My America knows all too well the dangers of its meaner self, recognizes when it has failed to live up to its promise, and strives to become better. It is not the America that thinks the world is a zero-sum “hunger games,” that people are either makers or takers, that the political divide is and should be deep, that compromise is a vice and that change is dangerous. My America is a rainbow, not a lightning bolt.
We are currently engaged in one of our periodic national debates about what America is. See, for example, the Civil War, the Exclusion Act, Jim Crow Laws, the 1919 Red Scare, Japanese-American detention centers and the McCarthy Era. My patriotism is not to a flag, but to what that flag represents. It is not to a piece of property, but what some people tried to make happen on that piece of property. It is an effort to work the will of our better angels, knowing we will inevitably fail, but recognizing that we are called to ever expand inclusiveness. It is the friendship of democracies, not dictatorships.
Langston Hughes wrote “Let America be the dream that dreamers dreamed.” He elsewhere noted that dream deferred dries up “like a raisin in the sun.” We have a choice about what America we want for our children and grandchildren. It is what those dreamers dreamed, now for everyone.
Penny Smith is a retired Western Carolina University faculty member who lives in Dillsboro.