For a person interested in gaining a measure of the wisdom in the world, it seems a natural thing to start with a close reckoning of familiar details and people. This tendency to contemplate the familiar in part explains the attention I paid as a scholar to Native and African-American experiences in the Early American public sphere. Being that I am a full blood Indian who grew up in an all Black neighborhood, efforts to deepen my critical awareness of the world stemmed from the perspective of my early experience.
In the aforementioned (“Writ” blog) paper exploring literacy and access, I had wanted to include a facet of the “white” experience. But, my writing on the importance of the Holy Spirit among Puritans, meant to provide additional example of how lived experience must struggle against the norms of literacy, didn’t quite fit. I ended up removing about 15 pages from my eventual submission, in no way regretting the research and thinking I’d put into it. After all, the main point of scholarship should be to learn, not to reach a set number of pages or land a particular job.
Last night, I had a flash of insight regarding how literacy worked to in a sense seal the fate of disenfranchised Early American white populations. I realized that the “poor whites” were denigrated, dismissed, and lacked direct representation in the halls of power in large part because illiteracy was equated with ignorance. Even though facility in folk knowledge could translate into self-sufficiency, because many poor whites (like African and Native Americans) did not possess the lettered education of officialdom, they were considered lesser than the whites who were learned (albeit less likely able to survive in the experiential ways that Indians, Blacks, and poor whites could).
This dismissal of those who are illiterate, despite whatever other stores of knowledge or wisdom they may possess, fits in very well with a worldview dedicated to maneuvering after self-enrichment. Perhaps my favorite novel, The Grapes of Wrath tells this story of disempowerment at the hands of those who determine the language and norms of policy in such a way as to assure their own benefit. The tractor displaced the soil and the people, because it was decreed normal and desirable and unstoppable for new efficiencies and technologies to increase production and increase the riches of those “owners” conversant in the language of industrial economies.
I’ve often thought of debt-ridden, overwhelmed farmers as the newer wave of land-based peoples driven off the land. I sense a connection between indigenous families carted off to reservations and small farm families either forced to sell, or forced to purchase industrial equipment beyond their means to then apply subsidized chemicals to subsidized monoculture crops beyond the means of the soil to sustain.
Which is all to say, in this country, We the People includes all of us descended from a history of oppression and dismissal by those who would, through avarice, misuse the power of words in such a way that, back then, broke apart families, and now, would break our true bonds as countrymen at the very time we most need to trust one another to fulfill the promise of forming a more perfect Union. The way we live together determines the usefulness of the words as written. When considering what we want America to mean and to be, it’s not the reading of the Constitution, it’s whether we are everyday living our highest principles. The only way to do so is to reconnect through the history and the present and the fate we all share. The top 1% is welcome to join the work of restoring connected communities. But the 99% needs to declare our determination to save one another.