I am Alan Easton, a participant in a reading circle called Finding Connections. The group meets here at the Society weekly after platform. It spun off from a study circle started in 2021 by Gabriel Requadt who was then an intern here as part of his divinity studies at Eden Seminary. I want to thank the other participants in Finding Connections for their excellent suggestions of books to read.
From four of our readings I pose the question: “America: is it good or is it wicked?”
First I present the perspective of Thomas King, a Native American raconteur. The group read two of his books. In the first one titled “The Truth About Stories”, he asserts “Stories are wondrous things. And they are dangerous.” (Ref. 1, p. 9)
He recounts the tale from Genesis which has a single creator (God), hierarchy, order and law and, after the fall, war. This he compares to a Native American creation myth which contains multiple creators, cooperation, equality and balance – not at all like the account in Genesis. King ponders the influence these creation stories have on the societies that tell them. (Ref. 1 p. 22 -29) He warns, once you have heard a story, you might live your life differently.
In his book “The Inconvenient Indian,” Thomas King recounts in detail the history of broken treaties and forced removals of Native Peoples in North America. (Ref. 2).
He wrote, “One of the surprising things about Indians is that we are still here. After some 500 years of vigorous encouragement to assimilate or disappear, we’re still here.” (Ref. 1, p. 128)
What do Indians want? Some of them want some land back.
He wrote, “Land has always been the defining element of Aboriginal culture.” To them, “land is home.” (Ref. 2, p. 218)
But he says the important question is “What do whites want? Land. Whites want land”: (Ref. 2, p. 216)
I wonder, “Could the European settlers (citing Lincoln’s words) have “brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal”, if these settlers had not killed and corralled the Indians?”
The theme of empire is developed in Walter Johnson’s book “The Broken Heart of America,” which, in addition to the eradication of Native Americans, includes the abominable treatment that white people meted out to black people.
The author tells us that before the Civil War the people known as free-soilers who opposed expansion of slavery argued that “the west should be “white man’s country“” (Ref. 3, p. 108) I confess that I thought, “Of course they did. They did not want Indians and black people to build the country.”
But not all contempt and violence in our history were directed toward non-white-people. In her book titled “White Trash,” Nancy Isenberg argues that the class system of England was imported into this country. The upper class looked on those white people who did not work the land, who showed no ambition and who were sickly not just as trashy people, they were considered to be literally trash. She cited many pejorative terms for them used by politicians and journalists over the last four centuries. But she wrote that the white trash were rescued from contempt by two great men who rose from their ranks: Elvis Presley and former president LBJ. (Ref. 4, p. 230)
I wonder, “Where are the white trash today?” I never hear the expression any more. I guess they are still with us, but journalists and politicians now apply their pejoratives elsewhere.
In spite of these grisly facts of our history, I hold on to my belief that America is one of mankind’s greatest creations. With its system of laws and its burgeoning economy it has raised the quality of life for its people, and for the world’s people, beyond what past generations could have imagined. Even as we absorb the critiques of America, we must not forget its staggering successes.
So which of these stories do we tell about the creation and history of America? Choose carefully, for as Thomas King cautioned, stories are wondrous and they are dangerous.
- King, Thomas: The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative (2003)
- King, Thomas: The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America (2012)
- Johnson, Walter: The Broken Heart of America: St. Louis and the Violent History
of the United States (2020)
- Isenberg, Nancy: White Trash: The 400-year Untold Story of Class in America (2016)