On Being a "Real" American

(Originally posted as part of the November 2016 playlist.) 

Digesting what the election means for our culture has been tough – both to decode and to accept. For me, one of the most frustrating aspects of the national conversation is the kind of reductionism and category worship that the great folk singer Utah Phillips wisely identified as “journalistic convenience.” In this case, the impulse to divide people into large groups and paint them in broad strokes. Rural America. Coastal America. Elite America. Working class America. Rust Belt America. Tech America. Real America. Unreal America (never named, but implied like crazy). Over and over the conversation subtly insinuates that the incontrovertible division in our society is between liberal coastal college graduates, and conservative working class middle-Americans - or some version of that.

But I just don’t recognize my reality, my America, in all this crap. I know that my life, and the lives of so many people I know, has nothing to do with these cartoonish characterizations. So, to battle this maddening reductionism, I want to state for the record who this real American is.

I grew up in Milwaukee, in neighborhoods on the edge of what everyone I knew called simply “the ghetto.” Neighborhoods where the long fingers of the all-black ghetto laced together with the long fingers of the affluent white neighborhoods that surrounded it. Until I was around 13 I assumed that half of the country’s population was black. Until I was around 15 or 16 I believed that owning your own house qualified you as rich. Most of my friends would have agreed with me.

When I was a little kid, my dad worked second shift in a factory in the heart of the ghetto. This meant that, once I started school, I didn’t see him much. He drove a forklift, did janitorial duties, worked on an assembly line, and worked with nasty industrial solvents and acids to clean metal parts. He did this for over a decade.

My mom grew up in a family of nine siblings. Her father worked in foundries his whole life. When he wasn’t at the foundry he drank and smoke. Eventually, he died from ALS and emphysema. My mom was 13 years old the first time she ate in a restaurant. 

I grew up surrounded by American music. Blues. Bluegrass. Old timey. My parents performed as a blues duo, my dad playing finger-style guitar, my mom belting out songs from the 1940s and several decades on either side. Their friends were musicians. As soon as I could be, I was a musician.

When I was around 12, our downstairs neighbors stopped me on my way into the house after school and commented that they didn’t know my dad played hillbilly music. Indignant, I stormed upstairs to find my dad and his friend Jim packing up their instruments. I angrily shared what our neighbor had said, taking it as an insult. Placidly and proudly, my dad informed me that they had most definitely been playing hillbilly music.

When I was in seventh grade I discovered the Red Hot Chili Peppers. That led me to Fishbone. That led me to Bad Brains. My friends and I found Jimi Hendrix, Sly and the Family Stone, and Funkadelic. We loved Nirvana and Soundgarden. We loved the Beastie Boys. We loved Fugazi. Soon after the Peppers I found De La Soul. That led me to A Tribe Called Quest. Together we found Public Enemy. We formed a band and played rock and roll. Later my friends started making rap. That same friend and I performed in an acoustic folk duo. At school we played classical music and jazz. In orchestra we thrilled at finally conquering Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms. In jazz band we turned Miles Davis’ “So What” into an up-tempo rocker. Everything made sense to us.

I learned to respect people who were different than me, because I watched my parents show respect for people who were different from them. I learned to respect tradition, because I watched my parents work lovingly to preserve it. And I learned to love America, because my parents showed me the bottomless reserve of bravery, soul, humor, kindness, and creativity that have been the building blocks of the real America. Black America, white America, and everything in between, which is really everything. Period.

I’ve been a roofer, a caregiver for the mentally ill (working 14 hour shifts), a temp, a wilderness camp counselor, a climbing harness assembler (working a sewing machine), a waiter (12 years), and a non-profit grant writer.

I get up every day and go to work. I do this so that I can pay rent and have food to eat and money to give my parents and my sister to help them out. I once lived for five weeks on $100. I spent about $15 a week on groceries, and at the end of the week bought a beer. I have no savings account, almost no money squirreled away for retirement. I assume that I will have to work well into my seventies.

I am a Midwestern white man. You might argue that, with my button-up shirt, my masters degree, and my job in a downtown office tower, I left the working class behind a long time ago. I won’t argue that I’m not ridiculously privileged. But if you say that my fancy college education (paired, btw, with hefty student loans), my subscription to the New York Times, my atheism, and my disdain for opulence make me unqualified to speak as a “real American”… Well, then you can go fuck yourself.

You know what real Americans do? We believe in America. We believe in history. We understand that every good thing we have has come from struggle against the forces of greed and power. We believe in each other. We know about our culture – our writers, our musicians, our painters, our dancers, our athletes, our thinkers, our explorers, inventors, and our rabble rousers. We believe in science and fact. We love our land and believe in preserving it. We acknowledge both the terrible things in our history and the fact that those things continue to reverberate today. We believe, because history has shown it again and again, that we are stronger when we work together, when we require our government to be a mechanism for cooperation not division, when we judge the health of our society by the status of the lowest among us, not by the wealth of those at the top.

I am the real America.

I am shaken. I am terrified. I am angry. I am, every day, sad.

I am determined to fight.

I am determined to fight for the America that I know. For the America that I want.