John Winthrop, 17th century Puritan minister and one of the founders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, is most remembered for his vision of America as a “city upon a hill.” At the time, he meant this not as a compliment, but as a challenge – a city on a hill is easy to see, warts and all. Winthrop thought that it was up to Americans to shape that city into something worth being proud of. If they failed, the whole world would watch, and laugh. If, on the other hand, America succeeded, it would be the result of hard work, not proof of god’s unconditional support for the colonists. Unfortunately, it didn’t take long for the city on a hill to get its own ad agency and just a few short decades after the founding of the United States, newspapermen had twisted Winthrop’s vision. In their eyes, American exceptionalism was not a goal to strive for, but something given to America (to white, Protestant America, that is) by god. In the words of John L. O’Sullivan, a fervent supporter of Andrew Jackson, America had a “divine destiny…to establish on earth the moral dignity and salvation of man.”
As Adam De Gree explains in his new piece, “that dignity would come in the shape of democracy and a new improved version of Winthrop’s words into the often misquoted vision of America as “a shining city upon a hill.” So rather than Winthrop’s challenge to the people to have to use a little elbow grease and create that shine, it was god himself doing all the polishing, while we blessed arrivistes just sat back and basked in the glow. And so our western expansion, this so called Manifest Destiny, was the conquerer’s mandate to keep spreading out, never mind the people, cultures, languages, morals, and societal structures that were already in place and had been evolving for many thousands of years. "Manifest Destiny may not have really been destined by god, but it did seem destined to shape the policy approach towards Native Americans and Mexicans in America’s western lands. It was simply easier to justify tragedies like the Trail of Tears by claiming the support of god the creator. By 1890, the West was proverbially won, and the first era of American history came to an end." Read This Land Is Your Land!
But what happened to the people who were in Columbia’s way? “As part of its plan to rid the United States of the “Indian Problem,” the federal government’s policy of assimilation–making Native Americans adapt to a white culture–developed a system of boarding schools in the late 1800’s where Native Americans would be stripped of their traditional ways and cultures–their long hair would be cut short to conformity, they would wear military uniforms and be forced to learn English, being forbidden to speak a word of their native tongue. The philosophy, according to Richard Pratt, founder of the Carlisle (PA) Indian school, was to “kill the Indian, and save the man.” Beginning in the early 1870’s, less than a decade before Native Americans would be deemed human by the courts through Ponca Chief Standing Bear’s lawsuit, their children were forcibly removed from homes on reservations around the country and put on trains and wagons to travel up to hundreds of miles from their homes. Alone, frightened, thinking their parents didn’t want them anymore, young Native children were taught that the ways they knew–customs, language, traditions –were wrong. The best way for them to survive was to become white, cut their hair, speak English and act like the men and women who took their land, battled against them and, ultimately, defeated their way of life.
As Tim Trudell recounts in his new piece, “It would seem mission accomplished from the days of Manifest Destiny, killing the traditional languages of America’s first people. But, there does remain hope. Refusing to let their traditional ways fade completely into memory, today some tribes’ elders have taken to teaching the young their language, traditions and customs. In Nebraska, only a dozen people speak fluent Omaha (Umó Hó) and as the elders pass away, a large part of the tribe’s language dies. In an effort to prevent it from happening, elders teach the language to children as part of the school system’s curriculum on the Omaha Nation reservation in Macy. The Lakota language will live on through a program at the Red Cloud school system, where students start learning the language in grade school. It’s believed that just over half of today’s 300 federally-recognized tribes maintain their traditional languages. If you keep the language alive, you keep traditions and customs alive. Read Rites Of Passage.
In Alaska, programs to teach traditional language in schools is proving successful statewide. With language programs beginning more than two decades ago, about 300 elders were recruited to help teach language to young people. The key was finding the proper spot for the language program. Eventually language supporters found just the perfect spot in the least expected place–basketball camps. Immediately camp attendees embraced the idea of learning the language along with the game they love. As coaches bark out instructions during workouts, they’ll say it in both English and Tlingit. It helps to have the language become second nature. As young players dribble, pass and shoot at the camps, they also take time to learn words key to the game of life.” By now it is clear that Manifest Destiny has given America the greatest privilege that anyone could ever receive – exemption from the normal rules of morality. Normal people may lack the authority to impose their vision on others, but Americans are apparently special. In asserting a god given mission to bring forth democracy and our ever-changing values, the U.S. has found the perfect excuse for all sorts of unwanted advances. The tough part now is facing the reality that we are all the children of all that talk of destiny, participants in the cycle of blind faith in our own self important future.
Certainly all eyes are upon us and our big cities right now, regardless of whether or not they are sitting up on a hill. And the constant displacement of people has not stopped by any means. As economies rise and fall, so do our communities and the neighborhoods they are made of. So whether or not you believe it is destiny, we all knowingly or unknowingly participate in the churn that is gentrification; out with the old, in with the new. Meanwhile, people, buildings, and businesses are being abandoned, destroyed, rebuilt, reinvented, and renamed, all reflecting the cultural, political, and socio-economic evolution gentrification brings with lightening speed. As Amba Brown discusses in her new piece, “The story of change sweeping through a community is thousands of years old. It’s been happening ever since the heyday of Ancient Rome, where historians have reported evidence of smaller shops being replaced by larger villas back in the third century. In other words, gentrification is nothing new. It also certainly isn’t isolated to any one country. Yet, what is new, is the rate at which it’s occurring. Across America, the rate of gentrification has accelerated in various major cities over the past decade, most notably New York, Portland, Washington D.C., and Seattle, just to name a few.” Read This Land Is My Land!
But not all gentrification is created equal. “When we try to differentiate between the evil real estate developer and the group of friends just trying to afford to make it in the big city, we realize that we are all in some ways participating in the system. But what is the role of the ‘conscious gentrifier’? That is, how does someone who is aware of what’s going on and doesn’t intend to disrupt, but due to living in their newfound area, fits inside this paradigm? And what is the meaning of the complexities hidden within this privilege?” All questions we each must ask ourselves, especially as Americans. We can’t continue to claim this god given exceptionalism as we continue to destroy history and its cultures in the name of progress while we ignore the societal implications of these decisions, actions, and policies. “The conversation surrounding gentrification is very much stuck in an endless cycle of blame. Evidently, the gentrified can blame the gentrifier, the gentrifier can blame themselves, and or greater forces for bringing them there, and then it all spins right back around on itself. But as privileged individuals, it’s not about finding who is to blame. Instead, it’s about acknowledging one’s role in this social issue and embracing the ways of the more conscious gentrifier. In the end, it is not having the privilege that is the problem; it’s what we do with the privilege that matters.”
You’ve heard it sung in auditoriums, classrooms, around campfires, and even at the Super Bowl. Some may call it America’s feel good alternative national anthem, but when Woody Guthrie penned This Land Is Your Land, creating a patriotic song wasn’t his intention at all. Guthrie had lived through the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl and the rise of Fascism. Having lived through some of America’s (and the world’s) greatest demoralizing hits of the 20th century, it’s not hard to understand why he’d write a song not so much celebrating America, but brutally criticizing it.
Guthrie found it extremely irresponsible, not to mention quite annoying, that a lot of other artists at the time were busy celebrating a laid back approach to the world with their lyrics. Funny enough, all of his grievances and pet peeves manifested in one song in particular: Irving Berlin’s God Bless America. It was the straw that broke Guthrie's back. And it didn’t help that the song was everywhere. Guthrie’s response was This Land Is Your Land. The song (once you get past the first few lyrics) is a reminder of all the past crimes the rich and powerful in America have made in the name of the red white and blue. Of America’s conquer-happy nature. He did not shy away from calling out hypocrisy. John Winthrop might even have approved.
Guthrie embraced music that was rough and politically direct. Now, you might describe folk music, with its guitars and hand holding and original flower crown aesthetics as anything but rough, but back in the day when folk music filled the airwaves, it wasn’t just music, it was a call to action. Folk artists like Pete Seeger, Peter, Paul, and Mary, and Joan Baez, and Bob Dylan used the mostly acoustic form to broadcast their politics to a nation struggling through the societal battles around civil rights as we headed towards the Vietnam War. And they didn’t just sing about it; they rallied, marched, and were physically part of the political activism.
And it wasn’t just for self branding purposes. Folk music was more than just acoustic guitars and raspy voices. Its straight forward commentary infused with the profound beauty and passion of the music they played, rallied political movements together. It put fans and protestors in one place. And it reached people who in other cases would just ignore the issues in the world. It made people think, and ask hard questions, like: As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking, Is this land made for you and me?