My father was raised in rural Arkansas where, until the age of 11, he picked cotton after school and during the summer alongside his siblings and parents who were sharecroppers. Dad was almost a teenager before he lived in a house with running water and a toilet that flushed…time frame, the 1960’s. The way the story has always been told to me, he graduated from high school on a Wednesday, his graduation gift that afternoon was a trunk and he was on a bus to Chicago later that night and for the most part he never looked back. Within two years, he would meet and marry my mom and I would arrive in early 1973.
For the bulk of my childhood, Dad worked physical jobs: forklift operator, doorman, dry cleaner and the best job he ever held during my childhood was as an officer with the Cook County Sheriff’s Office, which was short-lived because the stress of being in law enforcement took a toll on my dad. Most of my childhood was spent in the working class with the occasional detour into poor, yet it was a different time. My mom was primarily what we now call a stay-at-home mom during my childhood. Over the years, I have marveled at how my folks did it, how mom would stay home taking care of us, trusting that everything would be all right, even when times were so rough that we were once reduced to eating tuna sandwiches with mustard because we couldn’t afford mayonnaise and we were in between pay cycles. She never really did work outside the house until my dad was diagnosed with what appeared to be terminal throat cancer during my junior year of high school.
Yet as hard as times were for my folks, they believed that their kids would and could do better. They shoved college down our throats and it broke their hearts when I refused to go back to school at the beginning of my senior year of high school. My early marriage and entry into motherhood at 19, shattered my mom but the day that I graduated with my bachelor’s degree at 28 was one of the happiest days of their lives. The other happiest day was when my brother graduated from college earning his BA in architecture, the culmination of a dream that started in his preteen years when he loudly declared that he wanted to make houses and by his teens was drafting professional-level blueprints. They even scraped the pennies together during his high school years to send him to a study abroad program in Germany so he could study architecture.
My brother graduated from college in the spring of 2003 and was accepted into the graduate architecture program at the University of Toronto. He would start graduate school that fall. Unfortunately my mom’s life journey, unbeknownst to us at the time, was winding down. Less than a year after watching her youngest child graduate from college and get accepted into graduate school, my mom would be dead. A fast-moving lung cancer that went misdiagnosed for months would later metastasize to her brain and her journey from diagnosis to death would be eight months total.
A blow indeed, as my dad would later muse, to lose his beloved wife. But for a boy who came out the cotton patches of Arkansas, he felt blessed to have seen life, traveled a little and seen both his kids go farther than him and access the opportunities he never had access to.
Once upon a time in America, a man or woman could live a decent life that didn’t require multiple degrees to earn a good salary. I have often shared over the years the story of my maternal grandparents who were solidly middle class despite holding factory jobs. They had savings, a home, an annual vacation to Jamaica and the family homestead in Texas. Now their two grandchildren hold five degrees between the two of them (2 undergraduate degrees and 3 masters degrees) and barely get by in this brave new world.
I was raised to believe that if I worked hard, I would get ahead; instead I have worked hard at places where despite my sacrifices and hard work, in the end I was disposable. I have seen my cost of living rise as the wages remain stagnant. The dreams I had even at 30 are pretty much shattered and in my private and real moments, I can admit that I will probably die before I retire. In fact I should hope for that, since at the current rate of things, my retirement will be spent being a drain on my children and hoping that programs like Meals on Wheels still exist so that I can get one good meal a day as I supplement with kitty chow the rest of time.
As dire as this sounds, millions have it even worse, millions who didn’t rack up hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loan debt just to lick at the counter of the “middle class”…millions who, like my dad, have worked hard and are now redundant and shit out of luck in an ever changing world where a smartphone is no longer a “luxury” item but a necessity in a world where you barely can even find a payphone. (Few weeks ago, my phone started acting up, I went to look for a payphone…it was a cruel wakeup call).
The economic calamity facing millions of Americans in many ways is what lies at the heart of this election year angst. The dreams that we were raised with were really only fairy tales since few people have ever stood on their own merit to advance. Almost always a connection or luck involving more than hard work has been at play but that goes against the feel-good Horatio Alger story we have been fed. Throw in the very secretive nature of money in our society and we create a recipe for disaster. Since it is always easier to imagine that someone has it easier or is getting something that we believe we are entitled to (false beliefs that people of color are getting “free” college educations, anyone?) than to see that we are actually all in the same slow sinking economic boat and that only a few of the very fortunate are prospering.
It’s one of the many dangers of Donald Trump. He speaks a language of hope that hearkens back to a time when a person was “prospering,” hence the slogan “Make America Great Again.” However, making America great Trump style is never going to happen because he a snake oil salesman peddling bullshit despite the the feel-good, folksy persona that some of his supporters are connecting to. Trump promotes himself as self-made but that is no more accurate than saying the the Bush brothers are self-made men. Reality and facts often go out the window when hard realities and emotions are at play. Thus we have people like former child actor Scott Baio loudly proclaiming that he supports Trump because Trump “Speaks Like I speak” which in many way sums up the appeal of Trump to many. He doesn’t come across as a son of privilege, he seems like the self-made man many dreamed that they could be but that will never happen. Instead we are all marching to our collective doom as we sit on the cusp of civil war.
To make America great again requires more than the dreams being peddled on either side of the political aisle. For starters we need to acknowledge that our “greatness” came at a great cost and the backs of people who never received their due rewards for their labor…and then work our way forward from there. It also requires acknowledging that we are in the midst of societal change and then work towards a consensus that betters the masses. Change that involves acknowledging all of the inequities that currently exist and might involve examining who exactly is best served by the current free market and state and capitalism and whether or not such a system is truly feasible moving forward.
In the meantime, steer clear of Trump rallies and let’s hope the nation survives this election cycle. Or we can start planning for the cardboard village that will house all of in our old age. Perhaps we can buy the kitty chow in bulk and share.
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