Mount Vernon in America Today
Can we maintain adoration when our beloved is stripped of aspiration, only flaws remaining? That’s what I’ve been asking, these past weeks, and I am getting more and more depressed that I have spent a lifetime besotted by a racist patriarchy that I once believed, with all my heart, was capable of growing into the magnificent possibilities of its own imaginings. I love my country–or I have.
This is personal; my love of the United States was created by my family, first, and from my earliest years. Though he damaged his career through refusing to sign loyalty oaths and hated what he had done during the Second World War, my father also loved this country deeply–as had his father, a veteran of the First World War who had lost his leg in Belgium, and his grandfather, who had spent three years fighting for the union, finally as a part of Phil Sheridan’s army in the Shenandoah Valley, and his great-great-grandfather (for whom I am named), who fought the British in the Revolution and whose brother Joel would be only the second American diplomat to die in service to his country, in Poland in 1812 during Napoleon’s retreat from Russia. My father taught me about all of them, and much more. He instilled pride of country in me and a deep, deep love.
He also taught me what was wrong with it, how it had yet to live up to its promise, most particularly to the one penned by Thomas Jefferson (a friend of Joel Barlow’s) in our Declaration of Independence. Particularly in terms of the people who had not initially been included in the “all men” who “are created equal”–women, African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, and more. He taught me to love this country, its faults notwithstanding, and showed me that this sort of love requires working to improve it, to move it to live up to its ideals.
As a family, we protested the Vietnam War, not out of hatred of our country but out of patriotism, out of a desire to make it a country we could not only love but be proud of. Decades later, I joined Peace Corps, for Peace Corps (though its efforts at development are often to little effect) shows the rest of the world Americans who strive, who attempt to become better themselves by aiding others in their own quests to improve. I teach at New York City College of Technology of the City University of New York because my students show me the best of America’s future, coming, as they do, from around the world and from every ethnic background imaginable.
I’ve been seeing my country, this past year, stolen from me. The ideal of embrasure of difference is fading in a retreat to a whites-only, male dominated nasty and petty vision of a country that cares only about its own dominance. That is not what I was raised to love. I have been feeling, in turns, angry, sad, perplexed and defeated.
When, the other day, I had the opportunity to visit George Washington’s home at Mount Vernon, I jumped at it. I don’t know why I had never before visited there, but I intuited that it might be able to counter the depression that has been growing within me every time I think about this country I am still trying to love.
It did so. It made it possible for me to come back home to Brooklyn and face even the new comments from Donald Trump that too many immigrants come from ‘shitholes’ and that we would do better to encourage immigrants only from countries such as Norway. Whites, in other words, are what we want. Let me put that another way: Whites are all that Trump wants.
Mount Vernon is not a national park. It is privately owned and run by an organization established shortly before the Civil War, the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association. It doesn’t have to do anything in any way it doesn’t want to–and that’s significant.
What Mount Vernon wants to do is be inclusive. It does not try to join the new movement back to an even more racist America. The Association grapples directly with the slavery that built the estate, though perhaps a little too gently. Near Washington’s tomb is a memorial, created by students at Howard University, to the slaves who worked there and died there (it is on the site of the slave burial grounds). There is a major exhibit there now trying to bring to life the personalities of some of the slaves of the estate in Washington’s time. And there is a continuing effort to discover more about the people, the slaves, who made Mount Vernon possible.
Mount Vernon is America at its best, a nation built upon the economy of slavery but beginning to grapple seriously with that legacy (with “beginning” the operative word) in a way that can include all of us and that shows that we are more than just those with white and colonial legacies. At lunch at the Inn, the waitress was an immigrant from Togo (where I served in Peace Corps) who came here 15 years ago through the family reunification process–her sister was already here. The busperson was an Asian immigrant. The fact they were there reaffirmed my faith in American progress, for it is immigrants who have always driven the real American dream.
The America I believe in was built by people who came from ‘shitholes,’ either by economic necessity, to escape persecution or war, or through force. My father’s mother’s grandparents, on one side, came from Ireland during the potato famine, came because they were starving. Her grandparents on the other side came from Germany because their religious beliefs were not tolerated. On my mother’s side, many of my ancestors came here during the 18th century from Ulster Plantation in Northern Ireland where they had been an unwelcome imposition by English overlords for generations–and they were unwelcome here as too poor and too unwashed (as coming from ‘shitholes’), were forced past the established coastal colonies into the foothills of the Appalachians where they flourished and became a proud part of this country. Most of my ancestors who came here were poor and almost all were uneducated–the only work my Irish great-grandfather could get was as a laborer on the Erie Canal, for example. Most of the rest were farmers. My family worked, in part, because we came from ‘shitholes.’ We, and millions like us, made America great because we came from ‘shitholes.’ Millions who have come from ‘shitholes’ much more recently are doing exactly the same.
Each generation of immigrants improves America–always has (though Native Americans do have a legitimate, and quite different, take on that–another legacy we are only starting to confront). My students at City Tech are going to change the tech industry, wresting it away from the white-male and exclusive-education dominated Silicon Valley of today and bettering it. Bet on it. They are hungry and smart and the pattern is as old as this country. They will be making the rest of us look better than ever–if allowed.
What happens, in that regard, if the nation really does put the squeeze on just those people we need most–including the Dreamers who are being squeezed as I write? Can we even survive as a great nation? Make America Great Again? Not without immigrants, not without the drive that comes from the poorest of the poor.
A great nation is one whose ideals are always a little beyond reach, one constantly working to mold itself into the best it can imagine, though always falling a little short but picking itself up and trying again. That’s what I grew up imagining the United States was. Today, it is on the verge of becoming something else, a squalid little place of grasping materialism and exclusionary possessiveness.
At Mount Vernon the other day, my faith was restored–a little. We’ve always been a country of error and of malice–but we have always imagined ourselves as a better one than that, and have tried to rise above our faults. Mount Vernon, as it is today (not as it was in Washington’s time), exemplifies that.
It’s a refreshing relief from that real ‘shithole,’ that newly festering swamp just a few miles up the Potomac.