For those who can afford it, America has always been a land rich in the possibilities for reinvention. Long before The Great Gatsby, people in this country have seized the opportunity to remake themselves in the image of that which they knew to be true, or beautiful, or merely profitable. European immigrants – lower-class rubes, religious castoffs, convicts, misfits, starry-eyed dreamers – stepped off the boat and declared themselves a new people. They were no longer Europeans, but were now free of their past, completely untethered from the families and societies from which they came. They were American.
Of course, psychologists now know you can’t make a clean break from your past. We are working through the mystery and madness of our upbringing until the day we die. But back then, there were no psychologists to trouble us. We named our “new” country after an Italian explorer. We didn’t even bother to use his real name, Amerigio. America sounded better.
Our invented country – and its invented people – not only rejected our own pasts in our self-imaginings. We also rejected the pasts of others. A continent that people had lived on for thousands of years was christened the New World. Ever wonder why Native Americans (and, for that matter, Africans and Aboriginal people) have always been romanticized by white people as “living in the moment”? Hint: it doesn’t actually have anything to do with the lived experience of Native Americans. It’s because we can’t bear for them to have a past. A people who live in the moment conveniently fits our model of a world in which no one else’s past interferes with our own – the past that we have outgrown and left behind. Native people effectively function as role players in our own personal screenplay.
With slavery, we took our capacity for reinvention to a new level. Not only did European immigrants reinvent themselves, we invented an entire way of life. Like the Germans in the 1930s, this way of life was couched in an appeal to an imaginary past that simply did not exist. It was, perhaps, the cruellest slavery an unkind world had ever known; we claimed it as the eternal truth. We justified the inhumane system of our economic comfort by incriminating our ancestors, and God.
It was important that the African slaves not have a past, either – certainly not a different past – and so we taught them religion. By this, we meant “our” religion, which was, in a non-linear, non-mythical way, also our past. We taught of Abraham and Sarah and Hagar, offered our blessings alongside Jesus’ beatitudes, and told of ancient slaves obeying ancient masters. Though we were uncomfortable with our religion’s ramifications of a shared heaven, it soothed our consciences to know we shared the same history and the same God.
But then, history twisted around the poles of the covenant. Oh, what a glorious twist! African-Americans – who knew a thing a two about reinventing, for it was a knowledge upon which their survival depended – saw their own, separate history in the very history the white people had foisted on them! The Exodus story was seen for what it is: not a past to justify the rule of (Judeo-)Christian hegemony, but a present that God had given one people, and that was always in God’s hands to give again. Jesus was seen for who he is: not the patron saint of Europe, but the redeemer whose revelation eternally begins, not on one cross in Palestine, but on every cross, and on every shameful death from a tree.
It was Black America that redeemed the original promise of America. African-Americans had, at last and for the first time, discovered America psychologically. They had discovered how a half-forgotten, traumatic past could be redeemed into a promise of truth, liberty and justice for all. Christopher Columbus and his ilk enabled a shift of population across continents. Thomas Jefferson and the “Founding Fathers” (note that our leading lights were never sons – Jefferson himself cared little for his ancestry) tallied the possibilities in their imperfect minds, creating a sort of loose map of our collective future. We owe any mapmaker credit, but not too much. African-Americans, the Black preachers and talkers and hopers and dreamers of the seventeenth and eighteenth and nineteenth and twentieth centuries, were the people who actually discovered America for all of us. With nothing more than snatches of song about the promised land, they crossed the American Sinai, step by step, and came into “the land that never has been yet”, as Langston Hughes described our nation.
Gradually, eventually, over the centuries, America came to exist. It was not simply an outcrop on which Europeans could run away, clearing out the original population and bringing their own tools and servants. It was now a place in its own right, a culture living its dream out into the world. This dream is an important one: that the past can be redeemed, and the full present brought forth in beauty. And that the world can be improved, made a little more like the deepest dream in our hearts. If Jefferson’s immortal phrase in the Declaration of Independence, “all men are created equal”, was the deed of sale, the African-American experience was the instruction manual. And so, from its foundation in the African-American religious experience, other movements emerged: equality for women, a decent wage, time off and protections for working people, equal rights for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. “God hath sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat”: though Julia Ward Howe later renounced “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” as glorifying violence, she got the tenor of our American age exactly right. God’s terrible, swift sword of justice was no longer a statue of antiquity. It was in constant motion, breaking loose the old fetters.
The historical fact that the genius of our nation originates, in large part, from its African-American heritage will come as no surprise to our neighbors in other nations across the globe. I hate to break it to you, but no one actually raves about our apple pie. It is bland and unoriginal, merely a dull copy of its counterparts in Europe and China. America, the America everyone loves, is Dixieland jazz and hip-hop and rock and roll. America is gospel music and gospel churches. This is freedom’s music, and the world has learned it. It is the music where reinvention is not only possible, it takes shape. Time and time again, the music teaches us: this movement in your soul, this natural response to the sound of creative love, is who you really are. And you can be who you are called to be. It is a music that recognizes the past, but does not bow to it. Rather, it brings the past in, holds the pain and the promise close to the heart, and transforms it.
With that, why don’t we discuss what are, apparently, the great controversies of our day: Caitlyn Jenner and Rachel Dolezal.
Caitlyn Jenner was born with male genitalia and given, upon birth, a male name. But, she reports, she always felt like a woman on the inside. So, having the money and the wherewithal, Jenner changed her genitalia and her name to suit how she really felt on the inside.
It’s not that complicated. Jenner is not denying her past. She didn’t claim to have always had female genitalia. She didn’t demean, belittle or deny the existence and experience of women, men, or cisgender folks. She felt a call within her soul, a call to assert the womanhood that was her experience of humanness, and she lived out that call faithfully. Others can, and do, draw courage from her experience.
“What if she’s wrong?” some may ask. “What if God meant her to live out her suffering as a man who doesn’t want to be a man?”
Listen, people, my money’s on God wanting us to help the poor and liberate the oppressed. That’s the God I serve. That’s the form or justice the abundant and wondrous mystery takes for me. If I’m wrong about that, and there’s a God out there whose deepest concern is that we reinforce traditional gender norms – well, then I’m wrong about a bunch of things. And American history is wrong, and the Bible’s basic claim to liberating efficacy is wrong, too. But I’ll take my chances.
Then we come to the interesting matter of Rachel Dolezal. Dolezal has worked all her life in the Black community, serving as head of the Spokane NAACP and an adjunct professor of Africana Studies, among other titles. Dolezal’s birth parents, according to media reports, claim no African ancestry, but Dolezal did, at one point introducing an African-American man as her own father. She gradually changed her appearance, putting her hair in box braids and giving herself a spray tan. Dolezal also claimed to be a recipient of hate mail, that in all likelihood she never received.
One of the obvious differences between the Dolezal and Jenner situations is falsifiability. If Dolezal had simply said, “I was born to white parents in Montana, but I’ve always identified more with the African-American community”, there would be no brouhaha. Sure, one might point out that Dolezal has not experienced the same systematic oppression of those with an African-American background, a fact she would be wise to acknowledge. But I don’t think many would bother to call her sympathies into question. What she did, however, was to make up a false past. Who knows why: probably there was some sincere sense of allegiance mixed in with the reckoning that it served her professionally and personally to do so. Clearly and obviously, she did not tell the truth. How we self-identify is extremely subjective; the facts of our life are not. If I tell you I self-identify as a Green Bay Packer because of my love for the team, this might lead to all kinds of interesting discussions about whether fans are part of the organization, and what makes a Green Bay Packer. If I told you I once played as a Left Tackle in the NFL, that’s either true or false.
In Dolezal’s case, the falsehood was a hurtful one. For the millions who are discriminated against daily because of the evils of prejudice and systemic oppression, a white person acting black to advance her career must seem a particularly cruel joke. Every day, countless thousands of résumés are cast aside, simply because the name at the top doesn’t “sound European” enough. As ridiculous as this premise sounds, it has been thoroughly tested, and shown to be true. So for a white person to make a career from flaunting the myth of her own oppression? It’s a bit laughable, really. And it’s also obscene.
Still, there’s a certain curious grandeur to Rachel Dolezal – just as there was to James Gatz, the Great Gatsby. She was led on by a dream, and though her dreaming occasionally faltered into delusion, the heart of the dream itself was beautiful. She has been dreaming a better world, even as she refused to fully see herself – as she really was, with her past and all – as a part of that world. But we should not be surprised by this. Self-delusion has been the national pastime of European-Americans for a long time now. We came off the boat and were instantly American. We had no past. Nor did anyone else. This delusion freed us to be self-made men and self-made women. We could create our own lives, from scratch. We could rise to the heavens by taking a sledgehammer to the mountains of our past.
The dream of self-determination, the dream of absolute freedom from our past, lives on strong in this country. It explains everything from our tax laws to our penal system. It is slowly being replaced by a new dream, a better dream, borne out of the African-American religious experience: the dream that the past need not be forgotten, but can be redeemed. It is not inevitable that this new, better dream wins out in the end. But if it doesn’t, the old dream will not work. We will never escape our past by ignoring it.
Because even the idea of rootlessness has a past. Remember: the first self-made man was Lucifer. All others are crafted in his image.