My America

Hello everyone! I’m blogging this week from Bestor Plaza on the campus of the Chautauqua Institute in Chautauqua, NY. In front of me is a lovely neoclassical concrete fountain, with four friezes labeled “Religion”, “Art”, “Knowledge”, and “Music”. A little further up the plaza is the Smith Library, a charming Georgian Revival building constructed in 1931. If you were to walk a few hundred feet off the plaza, you would reach the shores of Lake Chautauqua, where the Hotel Athenaeum stands where it has for 133 years and the red brick Miller Bell Tower tolls every 15 minutes as it has since 1911. If you were to walk in the other direction, you would find the huge Chautauqua Amphitheater, where Franklin Delano Roosevelt made his famous “I Hate War” speech in 1936. Today, the podium will be occupied by Colin Campbell, the CEO of Colonial Williamsburg. But that won’t be for another hour. For now, the plaza is quiet save for the murmur of water from the fountain and the newspaper boys, in full 1920’s costume—paperboy caps, suspenders, plaid shorts, bow ties, the whole nine yards— all shouting “Chautauqua Daily! Get your daily! Only 75¢!” The scene has a sense of stasis through the ages, a throwback to an earlier time at the turn of the last century when summers were spent on the shores of a lake in upstate New York and all cares were forgotten from the time of June to September.

The presence of the CEO of Colonial Williamsburg draws my mind back to the time I visited Colonial Williamsburg about a decade ago. I thought it was kind of cool—where else can you see women churning butter or men walking around with muskets. There’s a certain air to it that you cannot experience anywhere else. However, thinking back on it, there is something there that disturbs me. All the people there were white. The lives captured by the performers were all the lives of white men and women. There were no people pretending to be slaves, showing the difficult lives of Africans in the New World, despite. In fact, I recall no mention of slavery anywhere, despite its huge importance to the economy of Colonial-era Virginia.

The Chautauqua Institute, like Colonial Williamsburg, is very big on the fact that it is historic. The houses around the campus all proudly bear plaques declaring the year they were built. 1886, they say, or 1890, or 1899. The sense you get walking around is this is what life was like at the turn of the 20th century. Graceful colonnades, cement fountains, red brick libraries, wooden piers. There is also the sense that this is a very American place. All the buildings fly American flags, and many have red, white, and blue bunting as well. And in a way, it is a portrayal of what was happening in America at the turn of the 20th century. There was a conference here then as there is now. The buildings were all here then as they are now. In fact, several of the same families that were here then are still here now, returning every summer, continuing a generations-old ritual.

However, for me there is something unnerving about this place that makes it feel decidedly un-American. That thing is the gate I had to go through to get in to this community yesterday. A guard booth at the entrance scans tickets, making sure no one is here who doesn’t belong. All 6,000 people here this week have been handpicked in advance (I am here because my father is one of the guest speakers). And as a result of the gate, everyone here is wealthy, and everyone here is white. The wealth makes sense; Chautauqua has a hefty entrance fee, and once you’ve paid that fee, you still need to buy or rent a house on the campus. But the lack of racial diversity unnerves me. From the moment I set foot on these guarded grounds, every man, woman, and child I have seen has skin a color Crayola calls “peach”. The newspaper boy is white. The other people wandering around the plaza are white. The woman jogging by is whInclusive?ite. The boaters on the lake are white. Even the large panel emblazoned “Inclusive”, meant to show the diversity of Chautauqua, has ten white faces and a single African American woman, 12.6% of America reduced to a single face outnumbered ten to one, with no depiction of the Hispanic and Asian communities that combined make up 21.1% of our nation. I am not alleging racism on the part of the Chautauqua Institution—the speakers this week come from a diversity of cultures and backgrounds, and there is no rule barring minorities from attending. But the fact remains: the attendants of the Chautauqua Institute are very white and very rich. And this is what prevents me from seeing this lakeside resort as a deeply American place, for what was happening in this rich, gated, white America at the turn of the 20th century was only a small part of what was happening in my America at the turn of the 20th century.

In the early 1900’s, my America was flush with new blood. My ancestors had just immigrated to this great nation. Some had come from Denmark seeking better economic opportunity. Some had come from Eastern Europe, fleeing anti-Semitic persecution. Some had come from Ireland, fleeing one of the worst famines in history. Some had come from Canada, chased out by the Montreal mob for failing to pay gambling debts, or at least so the family lore goes. Despite these disparate origins, they all came to seek a better life. They all left behind their homes and friends—some even left behind their families— all in the hope that in a place called America, life would be better. They had all left their native lands on the faith that in America, they would be given one of the most valuable things in the world—a fair run at success, a blank slate, a chance at prosperity. And when they arrived in my America, whether it was at the docks of Ellis Island or in New Hampshire, they were surrounded by a mix of other immigrants and people who had been here for years. Many of my ancestors faced prejudice, as many immigrants sadly do even today. They were called names like Frog, Harp, and Yid, names that sought to reduce them to the very thing they had just sacrificed everything to leave behind. They were told to live with others “of their kind”, seen as the outsider, and decreed by the general public somehow un-American.

The answer my ancestors gave to this greeting was to work. While the families of Chautauqua drank tea on the porch of the Athenaeum and sailed on the lake, my ancestors put their noses to the grindstone and worked. And their children worked. And their grandchildren worked. And as a result, I can sit here today on this green plaza as an American who no one would suggest doesn’t belong in this country. My skin is white and my voice has an accent originating from Maryland, not from Quebec. I was born in Boston, the birthplace of our nation, and was raised in the suburbs of Washington DC, our nation’s capital. I love baseball and find soccer rather dull. I am the sort of American who can be identified by one word out of my mouth.

But something in my heart tells me that my part of the story alone isn’t American, in the same way that this green alone isn’t American. My life alone isn’t the American story; it is only the last movement of a swirling symphony that spans the centuries. The opening bars start far across the globe, but in a place called America they reach a swirling nexus of different melodies that creates a great harmony of peoples tied together by one name—American. That is our true national anthem—a confluence of cultures, a litany of lives, a mass of meanings, all coming together to form the brilliant and beautiful mosaic that is united under our grand old flag. What makes my America beautiful is the new immigrants, the working poor, the welfare recipients, the minorities, the oppressed, because what makes those people get out of bed every morning and work hard is a truly American belief that if they work hard, they will better the lives of themselves and their families, that they will gain acceptance and influence, that they will be woven deeper into the tapestry of America. That is also why I think that federal support for immigrants and the working poor is imperative; it is an affirmation of the American dream. It is our country extending a warm hand, calloused as it may be from 238 years of hard work and building our nation great, raising the other hand high grasping a torch, and declaring proudly “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.”

It is that complexity and diversity that I find sadly lacking here at Chautauqua. Coming here is a bit like going to hear Beethoven’s 9th Symphony and seeing only the violin section on stage, the conductor explaining that the violins felt that their melody was the best part and thus excluded all the other sections from the concert. As beautiful as the melody carried by the violins may be, I crave the harmonies of the full symphony. I crave the myriad shades of black and brown and tan that make our country rich and complete. America is not a monotype print but a mosaic of 300 million little tiles, each one with its own color, shape, and origin. If you stand close, we look divided and disparate, but stand back and you see the full beauty of our nation emerge from the combining of every man, woman, and child who calls this land home. My country ’tis of thee, sweet land of diversity, for thee I crave. But until I see you again, with all your problems and strife, keep wondering infinitely about the infinite wonder that is life.


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