The Things That Make America Exceptional Don’t Make It Great
For as long as I can remember, I’ve felt a stifling expectation, an understood command to believe that America is great. If this country is not great to me, I am a traitor. If I could not see America’s remarkable progress—how it eventually fixed its mistake of enslaving others; how it bent over backward to consider race in college admissions—I must be a spoiled cynic.
Next Time, the Fire, James Baldwin described the “chorus of the innocents,” those who’d respond to claims of racism by screaming, “How bitter you are!” and “You exaggerate!” My personal chorus, beginning in adolescence with some of my white peers and supported by whitewashed history books, exclaimed: Look how far we’ve come. At least you’re not in [insert a developing country]. No country is like it.
This Independence Day, it’s that last line I believe.
It is impossible for me to give you every reason we are extraordinary, neither in this article or in my heart. Could I—for there will be new examples and reasons tomorrow or the next day. (This is at the heart of the problem. It is impossible to rank them. There is no “most important” when you consider, in a country where “all men are created equal,” hate crimes against Asian-Americans, bans that erase words from our libraries and lexicons, and Black maternal mortality rates that will surely get worse now that five Supreme Court Justices have told us that bodily autonomy is not actually a right. Our systems of housing and health care are suffocating with layers of injustice. Even our Constitution is held in high regard as if it had never been amended or divided my people into fractions. It is impossible to prioritize how many people are made expendable. For, look, a new tragedy arises, and—whether it shocks you or not—threatens to sink your whole heart in one second.
We are both too proud to be a nation and unstoppable as a people. We resist turning away from sin, refusing to trade guns for privilege or freedom and are unable admitting that we may not be great.
We were all present in MayI was given 10 days. After a white supremacist drove out of his way to target and gun down Black shoppers in Buffalo, N.Y., I had 10 days to step into a grocery store, breathe deeply by the bins of watermelons and bell peppers, and tell myself, “I cannot avoid every store.” Ten days to selfishly wonder if living in a white college town would protect—or expose—my family. If you are lucky enough to be alive, you can listen to podcasts about the great substitution theory. You could pretend to identify its root causes and keep an eye out for it. (Tragically, we’d soon learn too much about the difference between eliminating a threat versus monitoring it from outside.)
You had 10 days to create the image of a mom buying fresh apples or rolls. Then, we could read how she feeds others every Saturday, and see our elder queen breaking bread at the edge of a food desert. This was much like Jesus. For 10 days, we could retroactively rewrite the victims’ stories, plan a day wherein they decided the Tops Friendly Markets grocery store was too far out of the way, not worth their time, the butter or potatoes on their shopping list could wait. This is a shameful use of our imaginations.
Continue reading: ‘I’m Sorry. I’ve Got Your Sister.’ A Family Grieves After the Buffalo Shooting
As a nation, we may consider repair, but repentance means to “turn away.” And why would white conservatives turn away from their power and freedom and privilege? There is no rational reason for them to let go; it would have to be spiritual, moral, ethical—a space reserved for tired arguments about abortion or critical race theory, a concept none of them can accurately define.
Children in Uvalde in Texas were on the verge of losing their summer vacation when the tragedy occurred in Buffalo. Within 10 days they ran away and dialled 911. While law enforcement remained outside, they waited, bleeding out and hidden. Two teachers who’d cared for them died as well.
How much would it be to admit that we’re not great?
Being a motherI’m a Black mom and this statistic is what keeps me going. Guns are the most common cause of death among children in this nation. It’s inconceivable that we haven’t stopped everything, made the sun and moon stand still, until this is untrue. After mass shootings, flags will be temporarily lowered to half-staff, and a protestor who lowers his knees permanently in protest loses his job. If assault rifles are not banned and the song we have written, which was written by a slaveholder is too valuable to endure a knee, can we still fly each flag at half-staff until all mass shootings end?
I don’t pretend to have all the answers. Prior to the Uvalde massacre, my best idea for protecting my children was to get them each a cell phone. That is not rational; it is a mother’s tired plea.
You might tell me change is coming, and I won’t hold that against you. Biden signed the federal gun-safety legislation in its entirety. But it’s clear this legislation is less than we need. It’s a small step forward that doesn’t really address the heart of the matter—that certain people’s freedom matters more than others’ in this country. If this weren’t so, the NRA would have spoken up after the police killing of Philando Castile, a Black man who had a permit to carry a gun. How do I teach my children to celebrate a small “victory” when so much more could be done right now to protect them? There has been so much more done in countries around the world. We should be thankful for the small chance that future massacres will not happen.
Continue reading: ‘There Is an Emptiness.’ Uvalde Shooting Victim Lexi Rubio’s Great-Grandfather Remembers Her 10 Years of Life
Though he warned against it, I listen to Baldwin’s words. “Take no one’s word for anything, including mine—but trust your experience,” he wrote to his nephew. My experiences tell me that America’s commitment to gaslighting is extraordinary. It is a country that will exploit or violate those on the margins. Anyone with such a track record should first dream of being decent rather than insisting upon its greatness.
But if some must continue with parades and flag-waving, with understanding AR-15s as the “full armor of God,” then perhaps we can at least agree to answer one question directly, before we light the grill and stock the coolers. Let us all agree to stand or kneel and ask: Which of us are safe? And if we grasp, even for a moment, the true horror or depth of that answer, the way it exposes a darkness we’d rather unsee, let us remember what Scripture says about the man who looked in the mirror and then walked away, immediately forgetting the shape of his face. He was neither great or blessed. The text contains his warning and stark reminder about what can happen when truth is known but we do not act on it.