I am not a fan of holiday posts, but this gorgeous piece by Aker (Futuristically Ancient) took me on a literary and musical journey through the flip side of the Fourth of July and made me think about why I wasn’t going to write this post.
If you haven’t discovered her blog, take this opportunity. Meanwhile, some thoughts about Independence Day from the perspective of a working artist:
The more history I read, the less enthusiasm I feel for the American rhetoric and ritual called “patriotic.” In particular, I’m skeptical about the amount of attention given to superstars of stage, screen, and page, who “did it on their own.” Not only my own experience but history itself–artistic, literary, and scientific history as well as political/social–tells me that independence and cooperation play with and against each other in dynamic tension.
The quintessential American music, yes? “Our” great export to the world, along with all its children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren, not to mention its cousins throughout the African Diaspora. Music that will take you out of yourself, into the bosom of the Universe, pretty much the same way that any sacred music will.
Not what they were saying a hundred years ago; the coming of the cakewalk to St. Petersburg was read by Andrei Bely as a sign of the Apocalypse.
Let’s cut to the chase: “American” is usually read as “white”–though three hundred years ago it meant something quite different. Actually, three hundred years ago, “American” (a term used by Europeans) had the same sense as “Asian,” i.e. “person from one of several thousand cultures in a really big continent that we don’t know much about.”
And therefore, obviously, a monolithic category of aliens.
I was interested to read on the Racebending blog that Katniss Everdeen, the protagonist of Hunger Games, reads as Afro-Euro-Native-Appalachian. Certainly that’s how she appeared to the many fellow-readers with whom I discussed the trilogy, many of whom were heartened to see someone like themselves in a heroic role. Yet the casting call for the film adaptation was White-only.
Oh yeah, we’re “post-racial” all right, the same way as we’re “color-blind.” The same way that we’re past injustice, in spite of the yawning disparities of health, wealth, and education that grow wider by the day.
The most patriotic (native-land-loving) thing that an American writer can do is to engage with the dramatic conflict inherent in our collective past-and-present. Not coincidentally, it’s also the course most likely to lead to great art.
Dig down, and American history is as full of light and shadow, transcendence and terror, as Russian or Chinese or French or English history. Yet it’s an article of faith that America (United States of) is so exceptional that it need neither heed nor read the past. It was years before I had an inkling of what it might mean to be an “American writer,” and years yet again until I could write out of it. And that artistic confidence was not born only out of strength-in-solitude, but conversations with a score of friends and artistic colleagues struggling with the same contradictions. Not to mention the ongoing apprenticeship with the dead, which helps us to understand our True Ancestors.
We are all Hyphenated Americans. We are all People With a Past. And we’re in this together, whether as comrades or as adversaries.
Special thanks to TruantPony and BrainSister for the conversations that spurred this post. (Not to mention many fascinating chats about The Hunger Games, to which we will be returning in future posts.)