Closer to the Covenant
January 22, 2017
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The narrator of Amy Tan’s short story “Two Kinds” asserts the need to shatter her mother’s “foolish pride” in her daughter’s ability to play piano, to attain recognition, and, above all, to have more than her mother did. But her cruelty is not as cruel as it is intended to rescue her mother from her skewed view of the American Dream. It is cruel, however, to rebuke either party for their actions; part of the American Dream’s allure is in its enigma, and, consequently, in asserting once and for all what it looks like. Perhaps Emma Lazarus saw it most clearly in her poem “The New Colossus,” calling Lady Liberty the “Mother of Exiles.” Lady Liberty’s imagined words that follow are ambitious, rendering a mother a beggar: she begs other nations to give her their “wretched refuse,” elevating a mere welcome to a rescue mission. But how much rescuing do we do nowadays? How much have we done in the past?
When it comes to living up to our American Promise, to effectively invigorating the American Dream, there is plenty of room for improvement to say the least. Langston Hughes, a black man who endured the Jim Crow version of American equality (inequality and unbridled prejudice, that is) would know this better than most; so in his poem “Let America Be America Again,” he spotlights several America barely welcomed and failed to rescue. “I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek–/And finding only the same stupid plan/Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak,” Hughes cries, lending his voice to his fellow, disappointed American Dreamers. Perhaps disappointed is insufficient; in her article entitled “Two Ways to Belong in America,” Bharati Mukherjee distinguishes the disappointment of immigrants as betrayal – inflicting a deeper cut, a more penetrating wound.
And yet the bloodied and the dead appear similar when a war wages around them, while they are different in the way that counts most.
And this reality brings me to the photograph that says it all. For in 1909, Lewis Hine took a picture of impoverished children playing in an urban tenement alley, and he imposed tragedy upon it, perhaps in case of cursory glance, in giving it the title “Playground in a Boston Tenement Alley.” The image is infused, then, with pessimism. This shouldn’t be a playground, but it is all they have got. They hear rags to riches stories, but they drown in the noise pollution of the metropolis, teeming with American Dreamers, and the crack of the makeshift bat in their makeshift baseball game. Sadness and sorrow and bang and blame are all easy to see, but optimism, that which guarantees the Dream its longevity and catches the American Promise when it falls, is even more apparent. Because these children still have the will to play.
Man and woman, child and adult: free not to fly but to fall and fall. To stagger from mistake to recovery and back again. Perhaps therein lies America’s beauty, however, for if we are strong enough to hold on – fingers slipping, growing pale, and circulation interrupted, but still we hold fast – and to seek out even a shadow of the promise and to invoke its name whenever another failure is detected, then maybe that’s the strongest promise man has ever made to himself.