Over the past two weeks the Middle Passage Ceremonies and Port Markers Project has been involved in discussions with communities in Florida to plan remembrance ceremonies for ancestors, in a workshop in southwest Georgia where African Americans were encouraged to value their history and family artifacts, and in reading Dreaming Up America, by Russell Banks. All these activities are related.
In his book, Banks states that the American (US) ethos incorporates three basic myths of national creation. The first is America as the City of God/the city on the hill and a spiritual place where all blessings flow from the Supreme Being, as long as the laws of orthodox Christianity are followed. He argues that this is the basis for the establishment of New England by the founding Pilgrims. The second underlying myth begins in the mid-Atlantic and continues into the South, where colonists and communities were characterized by unfettered commercialism in the hands of powerful men, exploiting natural resources such as animals, soil, water, and people for the accumulation of personal wealth. Finally, in the Gulf region and the Spanish territories, conquest and removal of resources were the mind set, not building communities. As an added bonus, this American territory enabled everyone to create a new identity, to be born again. Over time, these three driving principles blend to create the American dream, a land of opportunity blessed by God where anyone can attain wealth. For people of color, however, their “born again” could only be spiritual since the nightmare of enslavement, oppression, and obliteration defined their new identity in America.
And there are contradictions in these myths. In order to accomplish any or all of these goals, violence and murder were the first order of action since the land was already occupied. In the name of Christianity, civilization, and democracy all deeds were justified and necessary. This ranged from genocide, to removal, to enslavement, to discrimination. Even today, religion, American-defined progress, and democracy are the stated goals and rationale for all national and international action. We kill, we oppress, we demonize for the ultimate greater good, e pluribus Unum. As Americans we can do this because we have in writing two sacred documents upon which we base our ideals – the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Simply be patient; we’ll get there eventually. Ultimately, in keeping with the Founding Fathers, we may even separate church and state if we can figure out how to continue the concept of the “chosen ones.”
Complement these myths with the belief that the nation is “white,” specifically Anglo-Saxon, Nordic. It never has been and never will be, but that explains why only a certain group of people have the power to define what the nation is. No mixture, no Creole, all pure folks of European descent masterminded this and keep it going even today. They were first in, and everyone else should form a line behind them.
The result, according to Banks, is a nation full of dreamers dependent upon national hallucinations. How does this relate to our work? First of all, we insist that the presence and contributions of Africans and their descendants be fully included in the country’s narrative, rather than systematically and deliberately omitted. This nation and its wealth were created by the labor and skill of many, not exclusively by Europeans. In order to justify expansion and accumulation of wealth, horribly wrong actions were taken against people of color – Native, African, Asian. Banks states that this nation must rethink and redefine its identity – quickly. Second of all, we want people to value their heritage, the before and after, and question the myths of nationality and pursuit of wealth as the defining motivator and measure of success.
At the end of Dreaming Up America, more questions are raised than answered, but we are challenged. What constitutes a successful citizen? What is the feature of US American – someone who can consume without limit or someone who shares the responsibility of guaranteeing the basics of food, clothing, shelter and education for all? What are our civil rights? What are our natural rights? How do we define America? Who defines America? Are we, as citizens of the US, unquestionably pursuing a dream that has no basis in reality? Everyone should take a stab at this thought-provoking text.