I read Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste last week, pondering the ways and means by which caste, as expressed via class, race, and gender, is the defining character of American life. Early on in the book, Wilkerson states that Americans generally do not like to think about slavery, how slavery is dismissed as a ‘dark chapter’ in the American story, or it is a stain on the American fabric. Americans, she argues, prefer to see their homeland as a beacon of democracy and freedom.
There are about a million ways to unpack this. But one in particular struck me.
In 2016, Donald Trump was elected president. He was crude, brash, ignorant, bloody-minded, loud, narcissistic. He was misogynistic, ableist, homophobic, and racist. And when he elected, more than half the country was shocked into silence, at first, floored that this could happen here. Then, many began to declare that Trump was not their president, that he did not speak for them. They wrung their hands over this election as they tried to understand.
I did too. I was living in rural Tennessee, in Appalachia, the South Cumberland Plateau, about halfway down I-24 between Nashville and Chattanooga. Our county, one of the poorest in the United States, voted for Trump. That didn’t surprise me. What did surprise me is that people in Ohio and Michigan and Pennsylvania and other apparently Northern states did. A few months later, I went down to Nooga with my good buddy, Chuck. We saw a gig, J. Roddy Walton & The Business, at Track 29, in the old Chattanooga train station. On the way back, we got to talking about the election. I was still flummoxed. Chuck, from Washington State, was not. He told me that we had got the president we deserved, that this was America.
And now, as this period is coming to an end, we are, at present, two weeks less a day from Inauguration Day and the beginning of the Biden Administration. Normally, I’d be excited about the prospect of Joe Biden being president the way I’m excited to go to the dentist. But, as John Lennon once sang, these are ‘strange days indeed.’
But reading Wilkerson last week, it struck me that perhaps now, after Trump has exposed and shone a light on all the unsavoury aspects of America, now that he has brought it all out into the light of day, maybe now it will be harder for ‘liberal’ Americans to pretend it doesn’t exist. Trump did not manufacture these forces, he simply gave them voice. They’ve always been there. Chuck was right. And on 21 January 2021, they will still all be here.
Now that Trump has blown up this notion of America the Beacon, perhaps now the real work towards building a more just America can begin. Perhaps now we can imagine a world where equality is not a bad word, where people of colour, Jews, women, LGBTQIA folk, immigrants, they can be made to feel welcome and valued by our society.
Now that we’ve seen this America, we can never unsee it. We need to now find a way to a better America.