30 October 2008

Our America (2): La esperanza

On the day of the national election, I shall be serving as an Election Judge in a Latino-majority precinct in the city, speaking pidgin Spanglish and smiling like a lunatic. At our training a few weeks ago, in a stuffy conference room adjacent to the warehouse of the municipal Elections Board, the diverse faces of American democracy were on glorious display. There was no satin red, white, and blue banner, no complimentary flag pins, just uncomfortable plastic seats crammed into a small, fluorescent-lit space filled with a wide variety of people: Subaru matrons, blue collar workers, secretaries, hipsters, silk headscarves and North Face jackets, clogs and work boots and discreet pumps.

The training facilitator, an older white woman with a mild limp and a desperate need for a deep conditioning, covered an incredible amount of information in two short hours joyfully and efficiently, while soberly reminding us that as Guardians of Democracy we were not meant to deny citizens their franchise, but to facilitate their voting experience with efficiency and friendliness. We had to be as fresh and helpful at 7:00 pm as we were 12 hours earlier, when the polling station opened.

The phrase ‘Guardian of Democracy’ struck me as amusing, while at the same time also deeply apropos for arguably the most important federal election in my lifetime. The symbolic value of an Obama victory is overwhelming for a slave-holding white settler colony with a violent history of racial subjugation. Symbols, of course, are important, perhaps more important than we think. It has been fashionable on the Left to dismiss mainstream symbolism as empty gesture, to mock the pretension of participatory democracy, to cluck at party politics as ineffective and corrupt, regardless of political party. And indeed, those expecting a magical transformation after a potential election of Barack Obama will no doubt be sorely disappointed. I, for one, fully expect to be thrown under the truck almost immediately.

This self-assured skepticism has played a role in the politics of the avant-garde for quite sometime. But the time for such shadow boxing seems, at least at this moment, to have become less important, the position of cynics, sociopaths, and ideologues, a self-indulgence we can no longer afford. And the outpouring of energy and emotion in the current election cycle reveals not only the marginality of this avant-gardist cynicism, but also and more importantly the belief people still have in the American project, whether from the regrettable position of conservative reaction and fear to the hope for a better, more equitable American society.

I have surprised myself with my own investment in our peculiar American exceptionalism, and not only in agreeing to spend my election day in a tacky VFW. To wit, I regularly teach a course on American immigration and race, and this semester, the course has been wrapped up in references to the election and the possible futures of the American project. As the class focuses on the violent histories of American racism and exclusion as it connects to the mythos of immigration and assimilation, such contemporary political eruptions into the classroom space are to be expected, as students naturally connect the course material with the drama playing out in real time on television and the street, on the radio and in conversation.

While not quite Fishian in maintaining a strict kosher separation of personal politics from the teaching space, I am loath to proselytize in the classroom. Frankly, I find it unprofessional. Yet, I also don’t believe in maintaining the fantasy of apolitical transcendent omniscience that so distorts classic disciplinary education. What we teach and how we teach has political implication, even if at the same time, as Freud noted, a cigar is sometimes just a cigar.

The negotiation of this both/and position can be tenuous, like walking a tight rope every class. One theme that has been a constant in the Immigration class has been my use of the first person plural in discussion. My professorial insistence on ‘we’ and ‘our’ rises above, I believe, simple jingoism. Phrases such as ‘our society,’ ‘our history,’ and ‘our experience’ are meant to reassert ownership of the fragile, imperfect American experiment, to place the ‘I’ within the ‘we,’ to insist on the collective nature of our racialized histories, our violent traumas, and our timid and piece-meal emergences from those nightmares into the light of hope, of promise, and ultimately of hewing more closely to the Enlightenment principles contained in our founding documents that form the basis for some of humanity’s finest expressions. It is also meant to unite the fragments of the classroom, the disparate identity politics of different standpoints, racial and gendered identities and experiences, under the rubric of shared experience. To paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, we either hang together or we hang separately.

The first-person plural pushes white students to think of themselves within racial-ethnic experience, while also connecting students of color and New Americans to the troubled collectivity of dominant society, both of which they are a part of, naturally. Such a position, while progressive in its own instance, also strikes me as old fashioned, perhaps a bit démodé in its assimilative principle. But more largely, I really do feel the first-person plural in these instances; it’s not just an act to convince skeptical students I am not an Amerikkka-hating ideologue. I really do believe in the promise of America, the hope of the American experiment, the potential of American exceptionalism, not in its limited, expansionist and xenophobically nationalistic senses, but in what it means to create new societies forged in hope and violence, blood and joy.

Over one hundred years ago, Jose Martí, in exile in New York, formulated a new hemispheric ideal for hispanophone America, “Nuestra America.” Our America, or at least my thinking on what that phrase might mean now, for me, for us, borrows from Martí in its recognition of the potentials of our society, of our historical mestizaje here in anglophone North America, a recognition of the nexus of connection between races, standpoints, and experiences that forms the collectivity that is the United States.

And it is with that idea in mind that I approach the coming election, not from a position of fear, but hope. An evolution, perhaps, into something more perfect, something greater than what we have been, yet not as great as we have the potential to be.


Vienna said...

what a lovely post. your reflections on teaching resonate with my own both/and position...i regularly pull myself back from jumping headlong into a political discussion, though i face students who wear the devil's pin.

what "we" teach is political as is the way we teach. quite different than dogma.

anthony grafton said...

Thank you for this beautiful post, and for what you're doing next week.

momo said...

As always, your writing is a marvel. I am reading this just after the networks have tentatively called the race for Obama. I would love to know how your day went. I have been reading as many stories as I can of the campaign, those stories where people tell a change of heart, a need to act, some way in which they decide not to be cynical or hopeless.

Hattie said...

Evolution. Yes.