The history of the United States and the American Dream are two intrinsically linked notions, with the latter standing at the forefront of the country’s conception of itself. Any description of the American Dream is likely to be accompanied by a fixed list of words: freedom, equality, success and democracy. These are the words that Americans seem to use subconsciously when speaking so proudly of their national past, without even questioning the origins or contradictions of these words.
This notion defines America’s past… well, the past it wants you to know.
Equality of opportunity should be – and supposedly is – available to every American, regardless of class, race, gender or ethnicity. From a very early age, American children are fed this idealised narrative of the American Dream. They are told of a country that broke away from British colonialism and never looked back. Of a country whose foundations rest upon the sound image of a roaring democratic spirit.
This is the story of American Greatness. It is an idealised story, but it is also a falsified one.
Time and again, the cruel reality of American life contradicts this falsification of history. Whether it was the chokehold that killed Eric Garner, a father of six, or the unjust shooting of an innocent Breonna Taylor, who was sleeping in her bed when a no-knock narcotics warrant was carried out, or the more recent death of George Floyd. The freedom America claims to offer continues to stand at odds with the reality of a worsening situation.
These Americans were not killed because they were criminals. They were killed because they were black. They were denied this All-American freedom because of the colour of their skin. Ultimately, they were never free.
And what is even more surprising than the deaths themselves is that they all occurred in the 21st century, one only a matter of weeks ago. Americans insist that slavery is a thing of the past and that the country has always remained true to its mantra of liberty. But slavery has simply morphed itself into modern-day injustices, which fester in the wounds of American society.
Although the evidence of this is blatantly clear, Americans still appear so dogged in their pursuit to convince the world that their country always has been – and always will be – great. The phrase ‘Land of the Free’, whilst seeming highly ironic to the rest of the world, constitutes the cornerstone of what it truly means to be American.
This way of thinking presents a new kind of American Dream – one that is not founded upon freedom or success but one that overlooks the atrocities of slavery and instead bestows patriotism upon the antebellum South. This is the dream of every American who refuses to accept the truth of their country’s past.
The sooner Americans wake up from this dream, the more hope we have of re-directing our highly unequal society towards greater things. We must wake up and confront our history.
The simple truth, yet one that is still so hard for some Americans to comprehend, is that America has never once been a totemic example of freedom. America is the little child, waving its arms in the air and trying to convince its mother of its innocence. How else are we supposed to understand America’s past without the word ‘freedom’?
Equally, America has always made shameful attempts to re-write its history against an idealistic, perhaps even utopic, backdrop. However, one cannot simply undo slavery. One cannot forget the injustices that run so deep in American institutions. This systemic racism could explain why African Americans are dying of coronavirus at three times the rate of white Americans.
America is not the innocent child we think it is, and its snide attempts to prove otherwise should not be trusted. No matter how much America tries to deny its frighteningly brutal past, it is about time that we understand the truth.
Recent Juneteenth celebrations – commemorating the emancipation of enslaved African Americans – should stand to remind us all that much of the country’s economic prosperity and ‘greatness’ has originated from oppression and injustice.
Government archives even contain bills of sales that prove slavery continued after the Emancipation Proclamation. The lynching of black Americans – a brutal practice which reflects the more recent death of George Floyd by strangulation – continued well into the latter half of the 20th century. American textbooks, arguably one of the outlets of historical documentation that we rely upon the most, are filled with examples of Americans attempting to side-step their true history.
In an attempt to erase slavery from the American consciousness, the term ‘Atlantic Triangular Trade’ is being used more frequently. Whilst this term may be viewed as an attempt to distract attention away from slavery and towards economic expansion, it stands to remind us that African Americans were treated as valuable goods to be traded and profited from.
For African Americans, freedom has always been an intangible goal. Slavery was transformed into the Jim Crow Laws, segregationist policies which kept the spirit of the Confederacy alive in the South following the Civil War. Jim Crow morphed into a civil rights movement, which persists today.
But even this part of history is not set in stone. An article from The Guardian, published in 2015, states that 3,959 African Americans were brutally killed across southern states between the end of the Reconstruction era and the Second World War, which is at least 700 more lynchings than was previously recorded.
Examples such as these highlight the exceptionally fine line that America treads between a history of lies and a reality of painful truths, and they force us to ask uncomfortable questions. How many more lies are we being told? How far will Americans go to protect their national identity?
But the American identity is one that the country’s citizens are determined to defend until the very bitter end. They will gloss over slavery and instead look towards American economic prosperity, not realising that this prosperity and slavery were very much intertwined. They will praise George Washington as the founder of American independence, refusing to acknowledge the absolute hypocrisy of this. George Washington was, indeed, a slave owner. He fought for the independence of the white American man but was not willing to fight for that of the African American man.
Yet, the most important thing we should take away from the recent surge in anti-racist protests is that the past and present are not mutually exclusive. Confronting our demons of the past means understanding the present and shaping a better future, one that is not plagued by a fog of lies.
Eddie S. Glaude, Jr. summaries this idea perfectly: “One of the unique features of American nationalism is how closely interwoven the idea of America is with the identity of the white people who live in it. For those who cling to this idea, the fear is that admitting the evils of slavery, or the continued harms of oppression, will make the idea of America – and they themselves – irredeemable… They would rather find safety in the lie. But if the condition of our love for country is a lie then the love itself, no matter how genuine, is a lie. The idea may be irredeemable. That does not mean we are too.”
Many Americans have already woken up from this dream. They have rejected this falsified narrative and taken to the streets, fighting for those who have never benefited from so-called American liberty. But this is only the beginning. Globally, we all need to take responsibility for the lies that have been told and uncover the truth; no matter the cost.
Words by Katie McCarthy