I grew up in the American Dream. It’s become a nightmare
I grew up in the American Dream. Now I’ve lived long enough to see it become a nightmare. This was not what I was promised, growing up in 1990s Upper Arlington. This was not what I learned in school. Now I have to ask. WTF even happened? What was even real?
The weird thing about the present moment is how it collapses the past. All of America’s current problems were always there, but so was I. How did I miss them? I was just riding my bike around, buying baseball cards, thinking both cards and country were going up in value. It obviously didn’t work out that way.
I spent 12 years in America, but in truth, I was living in a dream.
The tyranny of memory
The American Dream is so strong it warps even memory. It has literally rewired my brain. For example, take 7th grade Social Studies class. This is how I remember it:
Mr. B gave us an assignment, to plan a European tour. I got some guidebooks and made an itinerary. My neighbor Ray was the only black kid in the class and he struggled with this. I think I did the assignment for him. It was fun.
As an adult, I told my father this memory and he laughed. He told me what actually happened.
Thatha said the real assignment was to trace our families back to Europe. Something me (a Sri Lankan immigrant) and Ray (an African-American) obviously could not do. Thatha modified the assignment and had me find my diaspora relatives there, which was possible, but Ray was obviously screwed.
I find this fascinating because it shows how the idea of America warped my own memory. American ideology overwrote my brain. UA had redlining until the 80s, making us perhaps the first class that had non-whites in it. I even found this in the library microfiche later, but I never connected it to anything. It didn’t fit the narrative. Instead I just remember an ordinary assignment and Ray being lazy.
Honestly, I can’t remember my father’s version even if I try. It’s just not there. The American Dream was stronger than reality.
The bicycle of hypocrisy
It’s like a bicycle. I remember teaching my sister to ride a bike. She was scared because it made no sense. She couldn’t balance the bike standing still, why was I telling her to go fast? But that’s how it works. As long as a bike is in motion, it won’t fall over.
In that sense, America is a bicycle. As long as it’s moving, it can survive the terrible weight of its history. As long as a mythology can keep devouring its rebellions, the empire will stay upright. The narrative can overpower any facts. It can even rewrite memory.
And you know what? I believed it. The American Dream was real to me. As real and liberating as riding my bike. I still remember the feeling, careening down the old hill, not pressing the back-pedal brakes till the last second. Then I hit a car. That’s basically how it worked out.
I grew up loving Thomas Jefferson. I still remember visiting his memorial, I was so moved I can feel it still. What a writer. What beautiful words. I remember the Gettysburg Address, read over the bodies of men that died for them. I remember learning about the civil rights movement, when those ideals became real. Together it was one clear story, with a beginning, a middle, and an end. And us kids, learning about black history in an 99% white class, we were at the end. It was a beautiful story.
It just wasn’t true.
Thomas Jefferson didn’t even free his own household. He didn’t free his own wife, or the enslaved woman he was raping, or even white men without property. At founding, only 6% of the population could vote. America’s founders were rich white guys that didn’t want to pay taxes. They just made up some shit about freedom as an excuse (sounding suspiciously like modern Republicans). America was founded on this hypocrisy.
And yet, what a beautiful lie. What powerful hypocrisy. I don’t say that dismissively, hypocrisy is good. A hypocrite at least cares enough to pay tribute to the truth. They care enough to lie. Given time, those lies can even become true. This was the hope of America. That their freedom would eventually catch up with their lies about their freedom.
When they elected a Black President I thought they’d made it. That they’d run the racism gauntlet and made it to the end. But then they elected the first White President, and the whole thing came crashing down.
The End Of The Ride
In many ways that’s what Trump ended. The hypocrisy. This is not the most evil America has ever been. This is not the most depraved. In many ways it’s actually the most honest. Trump simply says what has always been true, but what has never been said.
America is racist. America is cruel. America is violent. America is dumb.
This was also the America I grew up in, but I missed it because it was in motion, and I was privileged. This was always America. But then, where was I?
Now America is like a bike that’s no longer moving forward. Everybody can feel the heavy, unbalanced weight of it all. All the war, the racism, the greed, the inequality, the violence, the endless violence, it’s all sitting there, like an elephant on a bicycle. It doesn’t make sense. It never made sense. It’s obviously going to fall.
That’s what broke my heart.
It’s not even what Trump did. It’s how his bankruptcy of America has cast such shadows on my past. On the past of everyone who grew up at this time, and thought everything was fine.
It’s truly like waking up from a dream. It’s not that the end of the dream doesn’t makes sense. It’s that nothing make sense. You have to question everything. This is the power of American collapse. It’s like the JFK assassination for our generation. Old timers remember where they were when they first found out. We’re left wondering where we were, our whole lives.