If I read one more newspaper article, or book blurb, or journal piece by men and women with glasses and thoughtful looks in their bio pictures extolling the plight of the ‘forgotten’ American I am going to lose my shit.
If I have to listen to one more pundit, one more punter, one more pontificator blindly reaching into the ether to grasp the imaginary coattails or the slippery bootstraps of the “real” American I am going to go pull my hair out.
Look–I am not denying this truth: millions upon millions upon millions of Americans have been forgotten. By corporations and government, by their neighbors and communities, by Congress and politicians. What I am disputing is the mythical notion of the one-size fits all American. The hurtful and degrading insinuation that anything or anyone deviating from a caricature, a caricature which is now decked out in a red MAGA hat and living somewhere between the coasts is somehow…what? A fake American? Not real enough? Semi-real…like Veleeta?
Let’s not play dumb. When you hear or see the phrase “All-American”, there is a certain image which comes to mind. It’s the same image that populates these news articles and books and think pieces.
And it’s not the inner-city Detroit kid or the Hasid from Brooklyn or the teenage girl from Nebraska who’s transitioning to a teenage boy.
The notion that rural, white Americans who are living in towns decimated by opioids or lost industry have any more claim to the title of ‘forgotten American’ than the inner city families decimated by the crack epidemic and rampant unemployment in the 1980s is preposterous. Yet one is now wearing the mantle of Americana while the other is held up as a giant American don’t. One is seen as a failure of the government and services, of trade agreements and globalization. The other?
The other was…and is…hyped as a failure of morality.
The rural American narrative sings a merry tune. Yet inner-city America (that’s fancy government code for black, by the way) is a cacophony. Only one is courted. Only one is being studied and endlessly scrutinized.
Only one of those is granted the title of American.
There is no such thing as a ‘real’ American. Trying to chase down some elusive, mythical one-piece will be about as successful as chasing down a Hypogriff.
It’s a fool’s errand.
To be sure, there are stereotypes. Hollywoodized and memorialized in books and films and television shows.
The inner-city single mother who’s struggling to keep her kids off the corner.
The perfect suburban family, picket fence, whitened smiles, baseball games and apple pie on a Sunday afternoon.
But what of the ones which don’t spring easily to mind?
The naturalized immigrant who works two jobs to save enough for his daughter to go to college.
The successful black doctor who lives in the suburbs and listens to Kendrick Lamar in secret so his white neighbors don’t think he’s ‘too black’.
The drug dealer’s daughter who recognizes the only reason there’s a roof over their heads and food on the table is because of her father’s illegal activity.
The reservation-dwelling kid who fights to claw his way out of the drain of poverty.
They’re all Americans. And they’ve all been left behind in one way or another. They’ve been shoved to the margins, erased.
You can’t take away someone else’s story because it doesn’t fit the neat plot structure you’ve outlined.
Those stories are just as American. If you cut them, will they not bleed red, white, and blue?
Try to paint American and you’re not going to get a picture, but a mosaic. Like the US itself, it’s a hodgepodge. A glorious haphazard. States were tacked on willy-nilly, here and there, a geographical mish-mash of mountainous terrain and coastline and fields of wheat-filled glory in-between. Swamplands and badlands and your land and my land and all the land in between.
There is NO one America. It’s too big. It’s too diverse, in every way imaginable. Just as there is not one American.
Yes, we’re full of stereotypes, camera snapping socks and sandal shod gun-toting chino wearing chitlin eating sweet tea drinking stereotypes. They stretch 3,000 miles across and half as many again up and down. It’s a land which encompasses indigenous tribal tradition and oral spiritual from slaves just as much as it does the heartland. It embraces co-opted foods and bastardized traditions from the steady streams of immigrants which have washed upon its shores for the past two-hundred and fifty years just as much as it does 4H fairs and VFW halls.
In reality the real forgotten Americans are the ones conveniently forgotten to be included in our definition of forgotten.
The snotty East side of Manhattan trust fund baby is just as much an American as the corn-fed blue-eyed Joe from Iowa. The California Latina and the heroin addict from Ohio. The out-of work coal-miner, the upper middle class neighbor. The dish-washer. The super-market bagger. The hedge-fund manager. The activist. The millions of children living in poverty and the millions of children living in privilege. They are all Americans.
No one person or group gets to define what makes an American.
The immigrant who gave up her homeland to take a pledge to a country which doesn’t want her is no less of an American because she wasn’t born in the heartland or on the coast. Choosing a country, giving up the soil you first walked on, is no easy feat, regardless of what’s happening on the shores you left behind. To believe enough in a new home to give up identity, culture, homeland, family, language. It’s a witch relinquishing her familiar. And yet these are the very folks who some would consider not ‘real’ Americans. They are forgotten.
Native tribes who were shoved to the corners of the country, into dust bowls and barren lands. They are forgotten.
Black Americans, dragged here in chains against their will, still rising up against a different set of chains. They are forgotten.
Yet no one is chasing down their stories in the quest to hear from the forgotten American.
There is no litmus test. There is no purity test. There is no financial means test. The family who needs help from the government is just as American as the one who funds university libraries. There is no single set of criteria one must meet.
And so you’ll forgive me if I am weary of so many Americans forgetting about so many Americans in the search to track down the forgotten American.