There are two ways to describe American history. That’s what I claimed in my latest book, Master of Deceit: J. Edgar Hoover and America in the Age of Lies (Candlewick, 2012), and it’s one of the statements that former YALSA President Sarah Flowers criticized on her blog, “Crossreferencing,” which she shares with her son Mark.
Here’s what Sarah had to say about page four of my book: “There are two paragraphs here, which begin with the sentence, ‘There are two ways to tell the story of America.’ Again I was pulled to an abrupt halt. Really? (I thought) There are two ways to tell the story of America? Two? Not three or six or twenty.’”
Obviously, I don’t agree, and I look forward to a lively discussion with the Flowers team at some future gathering. But I’m restating my point here not to wrangle over my book’s language, but rather to reflect on the recent presidential election and some of the post-election analysis and complaints.
As the New York Times reported, some Republican voters in, for example, Wyoming are discouraged by the election’s outcome. Those businesspeople see what they term “dependency” on the government as “unsustainable” and directly counter to what they’re certain is our nation’s can-do, self-reliant, and individualist core. Of course, it was precisely this split between the 47 percent of takers and, implicitly, the 53 percent of doers that Governor Romney spoke of in that captured video—a split echoed by Bill O’Reilly and many others after the election.
From the Colonial days, when Pennsylvania’s rich lands were called the “best poor-man’s country,” through Emerson’s canonical essay on self-reliance, through the generations of graduation speakers who have used his words as their guide and inspiration, America has stood as a land where an individual has a chance to make good. Our emphasis on the individual as an individual was in stark contrast to the rest of the world, where a nation or empire generally embraced an established religion. In those societies, one was defined as belonging to the prevailing faith or viewed as an outsider. There was also a set class system in which your expectations were defined by your birth—and a strong sense of national heritage in which to be English, or Chinese, or Zulu was defined by not being something else. Of course, this made it difficult to figure out what rights to grant minorities, such as Jews, Quakers, Uighurs (Muslim Chinese), Koreans in Japan, etc.
No wonder the Wyoming voters are angry and feel as if the America they know, love, and believe in is slipping away and joining the muck of the world that their ancestors left behind. But there’s one key flaw in that narrative of American history. When Congress first set rules for how an immigrant could be become a naturalized citizen, it faced a major dilemma. Should just anyone be allowed to come here and join the American experiment, including Jews who could not vote or hold office in England and Catholics who might be beholden to the Pope? In 1790, Congress decided that religion would not be a barrier. Indeed, any free white person was eligible for citizenship. (The rule was amended to include Africans after the Civil War—and thus specifically excluded Asians and later Hispanics; the law was not fully replaced until 1952.)
For some Americans, being an individual has always been trumped by being part of a group: African Americans, Native Americans, LGBT Americans, Hispanic Americans, Asian Americans, Jewish, Catholic, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist Americans, and even female Americans have always been aware of their group identity—once considered a demerit, now often a source of pride. Here’s the second narrative of American history: no matter who you were as an individual, the shadow of your group defined how others perceived you, and it greatly influenced your prospects. If you identify with any of these groups, American history has only fractionally been a story of individual effort. Rather, it has always been a matter of collective profile.
In the recent election, members of precisely these same groups tended to side with President Obama, and all of the post-election demographic analysis has been about their rising power. One narrative of America’s history that emphasizes collective experience is edging past another that emphasizes that individuals are free to seek their own destinies. But there are, as I said at the beginning, two narratives of our past. Both are, in their own way, true. Indeed, it’s the weave, the intersection, of belief in the individual and the assumption that that individual is white and male, that’s our national story. Both of these stories, taken together, subvert and enhance one another and make up the real pageant of our past.
What a perfect Common Core topic: present your students with a cluster of resources, some that focus on America as the land of the individual and others that focus on our nation as the land of group prejudice and collective experience. Soon, I hope, your libraries will be alive with sound of the resulting questions, comments, and debates. I can hardly wait.
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