There are few moments, if any, when I’m unaware of who I am in America, or unaware of how much the way I must move throughout her is circumscribed by the terms of my existence in this body. And yet I still encounter moments that jolt through the finger like latent static, where I am re-reminded — as though I could ever risk forgetting — just how much the country I live in is planets away from the one many here say they know.
I experienced another such moment recently, right here in the opinion section of The Cap Times, reading Rabbi Jonathan Biatch’s piece, "Doubling down on American goodness" — a piece describing a nation wholly unrecognizable to me.
My passport is blue. I was born in this country, and have lived here all my life. I’m also a Black woman, a Black Christian — an aspect of myself relevant primarily for how it’s shaped my thinking about liberative justice, sociology, and national allegiance (or lack thereof) as a free woman and person of faith.
I have no desire to single out Rabbi Biatch’s opinions, as he articulated them, as particularly out of the American mainstream. It’s actually a deeply bipartisan position under a distinctly Eurocentric framework: that America is a force of moral good, and that the Trump presidency is merely an embarrassing deviation from the U.S.’s “spirit of American goodness,” where “over the last 243 years, our nation has dreamed of a very different kind of society from that imagined by our current president,” as Rabbi Biatch said in his piece.
However, there is an essential difference between aspiration and actuality, and to conflate the two will inevitably result in continued historical revisionism — a key tenet of the American project of “progress” at any and all human cost.
The United States is an imperial power, whose ideological commitment to manifest destiny has never stopped at the shores of the Pacific. America planted itself in the land her founders stole, soaked in the blood of indigenous people they nearly wiped out in entirety; nourished herself on the blood, bodies, and sweat of enslaved Africans they also stole — men, women, and infants bought, bred and sold as livestock. And even those who now are called and call themselves “white,” those many descendants of Irish, Italian, Greek and Russian immigrants — not even they have escaped the scalding of the melting pot after over a hundred years of Anglicized assimilation: the languages, cultural traditions, and ethnic markers of their ancestors shed in the service of eventually becoming “white” — which, especially under the tyranny of Jim Crow, has always meant “not black … anything but Black.”
By naming this, I’m not digging up the past. I’m naming the present. We are mere generations away from living people with memories of enslavement. Black women were denied voting rights until 1965; the U.S. Senate didn’t unanimously pass an anti-lynching bill until 2019; Black people continue to live under the brunt of militarized police violence and surveillance; slavery is still legal for incarcerated people under the 13th Amendment; the U.S. government has all but replicated its World War II-era internment camps for Japanese Americans — but this time, caging immigrant men, women and small children coming from south of the U.S. border. And so on.
I agree with Rabbi Biatch that there are Americans — though I’ll be more specific and say white Americans — who do feel paralyzing shame, embarrassed by Donald Trump and what his administration has finally made obvious to them. And no one wants to see themselves as complicit in destruction and terror, so it’s easier to distance oneself and project a dream, a fantasy, as the real thing. It’s "Make America Great Again," in a different costume.
Truth can be hideous to behold. And the truth is, Donald Trump is squarely in line with America’s historical trajectory — one in which, if Newton’s third law has any weight, the consequences of electing a Black president twice is a Donald Trump. He has shown himself to be the inevitable result of 243 years of a national identity ensured by the worship of whiteness and capital, a cartoonish embodiment of everything this country’s ideology of progress has put the highest premium on: wealth, hubris, fear, willful ignorance of the “other.” His spoutings are nothing new to Black folks.
Though there have always been activists, writers, teachers, abolitionists and working-class people within this nation’s borders — Black and brown, indigenous survivors, queer and disabled people across races who’ve spent their lives toiling to make this place more just and habitable for futurity — these efforts have run counter to historical American values of power — and this has potential to be a transformative framework.
But we on the margins, and those who came before us, have survived despite America, not because of her.
Natasha Oladokun is a poet and essayist. She holds fellowships from Cave Canem, the Virginia Center for Creative Arts, and the Jackson Center for Creative Writing. Her work has appeared in the American Poetry Review, Harvard Review Online, Pleiades, Kenyon Review Online and elsewhere. She is associate poetry editor at story South, and is the inaugural First Wave Poetry Fellow at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Share your opinion on this topic by sending a letter to the editor to firstname.lastname@example.org. Include your full name, hometown and phone number. Your name and town will be published. The phone number is for verification purposes only. Please keep your letter to 250 words or less.