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Friday, June 14, 2024

Time to flip the script on the American imaginary

Oscar H. Blayton / March 1, 2024

People of a certain age may remember a 1960s movie that contained a subplot in which a manipulative teenage girl lures a boy into taking her to a dance, only so she can secretly pursue the boy who is the true object of her affection.

This manipulative deception also seems to be a subplot of the current national Democratic Party’s strategy.

It is maddening to watch as Democratic politicians tiptoe around the still extant “White preference” and outright bigotry that is baked into much of the American electorate.

Democratic political analysts continue to scratch their collective heads over the perplexity of how Donald Trump, a four-times criminally indicted liar and sexual predator, is currently polling ahead of Joe Biden in the upcoming November presidential election. These analysts are unable to fathom this phenomenon because they are unaware they are wearing blinders created by centuries of racist idealization fabricated out of the notion of manifest destiny and “the White man’s burden.”

The modern Democratic Party has used the Black vote and, in most instances, the vote of other racial minorities to get to the dance, but once there, it seeks the affection of those elements of American society that voted against them.

And what is worse is that many super-loyal Black Democrats are always willing to overlook the slights and indignities. They endorse, support and work for their abusers despite the long history of abuse.

America has a long history of not returning the love people of color have showered on it. For example, this nation continuously overlooks the sacrifices Black men and women have made in every military conflict fought on American soil and abroad, beginning with the Natchez War in 1729 – before this nation was even birthed.

America also has a short memory when it comes to recognizing assistance it has received from non-Europeans in times of crisis. While the Tuskegee Airmen finally are being recognized nationally, not many Americans know that Mexico’s 201st Fighter Squadron (Escuadrón Aéreo de Pelea 201), saw combat on Luzon Island in the Philippines in 1945 while attached to the U.S. 5th Air Force during World War II.

These types of omissions are a result of America’s inability to visualize anyone other than multi-generational descendants of European immigrants as truly American or worthwhile allies. Put in shorthand, this particular problem with America is the dominant American “national imaginary.”

A national imaginary is a construct comprised of the collective perceptions, beliefs and symbols that define a nation’s identity and is created from narratives, myths and historical events. It is a construct that shapes how individuals within a nation imagine themselves and their belonging to a larger community. To draw an analogy, it is a mirror that members of a national community use to view their reflection. But when that mirror is constructed in such a way as to enhance some aspects of the vision, blur others and completely eliminate what the viewer wishes not to see, the image is a fantasy.

For centuries, the dominant culture in America has honed its expertise in constructing an imaginary that does just that. In years past, the American imaginary was a country filled with happy and industrious descendants of Europeans who, through hard work and high principles, civilized a savage and brutal land. This vision necessitated the marginalization of the First Nations people whose inefficient utilization of the resources of a vast continent justified their elimination by force. It also necessitated the marginalization of the descendants of enslaved Africans whose centuries of free labor was a result of humanistic Christian charity while pushing forward the mythology of rugged individualism and virtuous work ethic of the dominant culture.

In post-industrial America, it became too difficult to distort the history of the theft of land and labor into one of noble enterprise. As a result, the old version of the imaginary became superfluous and was tweaked to erase a great deal of history and make way for a newer more acceptable version. Still, the current American imaginary makes little space for ethnic minorities and other marginalized groups. Because of this, Black voters can take Democratic office seekers to the dance, but we are not actually the object of those politicians’ affection.

Even though this is the closest we have ever come in American history, there is no strongly shared vision of community among the racial divisions within the Democratic Party. A national imaginary expresses the emotional and psychological connections people have with what they perceive to be their nation. If we look at past nations that were more homogeneous because travel was less efficient, we can see that national imaginaries were woven out of origin myths, constitutive processes, heroic figures and shared values. Historically, these are the things that contribute to a sense of unity and belonging among citizens.

Given its history and current divisions, American unity will be a difficult thing to channel. We live in a country of such divergent views that it issued a Robert E. Lee postage stamp in 1995 and a Malcolm X postage stamp in 1999. That being said, the Democratic Party must find a way to create unity within its ranks and forge a singular national imaginary whose foundations are grounded in reality. And they must forge a national imaginary that they all can truly believe in. While this will be difficult, national imaginaries are fluid and need not be bound to a disgraceful past. They can be adaptable and evolve over time through the honest interactions of various cultures.

For the Democratic Party, there is only one dance hall, and if they are not willing to dance with the people of color who brought them, they most likely will not dance at all. So, instead of abandoning the friends who got them to the dance, Democrats need to find reasons to bond with those friends. For this reason, Democrats must lead the way abandoning the current American imaginary to build a new one that is inclusive, positive and powerful. This can be done only by creating space for marginalized individuals to participate in shaping a more inclusive narrative.

Time is running out for the Democratic Party. It must decide whether to be faithful to those whose longtime support has given them leverage and power or to chase after those who typically ignore them due to their adherence to an American imaginary that is exclusive and discriminatory.

Oscar H. Blayton is a former Marine Corps combat pilot and human rights activist who practices law in Virginia.


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Since 1967, the Carolina Peacemaker has served as North Carolina’s leading news weekly with a national reputation. Founded by Dr. John Kilimanjaro, the newspaper is published by Carolina Newspaper, Inc.

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