We Americans

On July 3, 2020 there were competing cultural events taking place, each in its own way speaking into the moment.

Millions gathered together around televisions last Friday to watch the Disney+ premiere of the runaway hit, and now ubiquitous pop culture touchstone, Hamilton. As an origin story of the United States and Alexander Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s brilliant musical is a work of myth making. A show using the life and times of Alexander Hamilton as pretext for telling the origin story of the United States, Hamilton is an act of clever expansion and subversion of the American narrative.

With a cast almost exclusively consisting of BIPOC, Miranda makes us think deeply of George Washington’s admission within the play that we have no control over “who lives, who dies, who tells your story.” Hamilton deftly subverts the Eurocentric reading of the story that props up notions of white supremacy and effects erasure. Hamilton isn’t perfect, but it is a celebration of who we are and who we can become if we realize, as Burr did late into the musical, that the world is wide enough for all of us.

At the same time in South Dakota, President Trump was engaging in a spectacle at the foot of Mt. Rushmore as part of the 4th of July weekend. The Trump administration had secured the iconic landscape site as a backdrop for an address to the nation, a not uncommon task presidents take up during the holiday weekend. These addresses too are nationalist forms of myth making, combining pageantry, military symbolism, and American exceptionalism. It is traditionally a time where presidents deliver generic, unifying appeals to our shared ideals narratively rooted in the national mythos.

Perhaps like no other occupant of the office before him, our current president is a pop cultural product. A combination of artifice, branding, and bluster, Donald Trump knows how to keep his name in lights. He also knows that sizzle sells and nothing sizzles like stoking division. Unlike boilerplate 4th of July presidential addresses, Trump laid out a call to arms to rise up against the threat of enemies at the gate who were engaging in a “merciless campaign to wipe out our (emphasis mine) history, defame our heroes, erase our values, and indoctrinate our children.” The enemy? Other Americans lifting their voices to call for justice, to illuminate the thread of white supremacy violently woven into the tapestry of the American narrative rending it apart, and to call for the removal of statues to the Confederacy and colonialism.

Well below the attention received by the previously mentioned events, there was a smaller, quieter piece of popular culture that emerged that same week, a piece that serves to frame the complexity and the turmoil of the moment. The Avett Brothers released a video for their song “We Americans” off their 2019 album Closer Than Together. It emerged as an anomaly in their catalogue, a song explicitly rooted in the debate over American exceptionalism as myth and as whitewashing.

The video is set in stark black and white magnet art animation but the lyrics immediately undercut any clean cut dichotomy, the evocation of shed blood highlighting the indelibly gray murkiness of any clean American narrative. The Avetts speak into the complexity of the moment. They are sons of Uncle Sam, raised to dearly love this country but given a story that’s “...complicated and hard to read, pages of the book obscured or torn out completely.”

The 4th invites us to celebrate a country that has brought achievements and prosperity and hope to many but it is, as Seth sings, also “a place built with stolen land with stolen people.” A clear cut narrative of good vs. evil where “our side/people” are good and all else are evil is made possible only by subsuming difference, crushing nuance, and projecting our sins outward. This erasure also contains the possibility of its demise, for the inconvenient truths buried at the foundation of American exceptionalism point to the very instability of the entire edifice.

“Making America Great Again” was always premised on patching over the cracks in the edifice, propping up myths of innocence with projection and retribution. It was never about “We Americans.” It has room only for disingenuous self-congratulation and eschews repentance by seeking to control the narrative. Confederate monuments were never about honoring great men but about suppressing recognition of, while simultaneously erecting symbols of, horror. Cue Miranda’s General Washington though, “You have no control. Who lives. Who dies. Who tells your story.”

The Avetts’ song is no towering anthem striking a death blow to the foundations of white supremacy. It is, though, a lament and confession that takes root in a crack in the structure, which in itself is not insignificant. We the people, in order to form a more perfect union is always out in front of us, calling us forward to greater and more robust incarnations of the ideal. Such a call is a threat to myths and monuments of erasure. “We Americans” is already, but not yet. It is a project that is paradoxically, as the Avetts remind us, accomplished “because of, and in spite of, we the people.”

Confession. Accountability. Repentance. Reparation. These values are too often vigorously resisted by a nation that claims ownership of a religion that calls for these very acts. We can move forward and love our country. But only if “We Americans” maintain “love in our hearts with the pain and the memory, love in our hearts with the pain and the memory.” Love is accountability, not denial. It is repentance, not repression. And it can be rightly expressed in tearing down monuments of terror and looking soberly into our fault lines.  - Rick Quinn