All of this should make it come as little surprise that the Ku Klux Klan had also adopted ‘America first’ as a motto by 1920… The fantasy of an America once populated solely by the racially pure Nordic ‘common man’ was the Klan’s genesis myth as well, the prelapsarian past to which they hoped to force America to return—by violence if necessary.
She was flabbergasted. I’m proud to be Black, I said, and she, my neighbor, was flabbergasted. I could see her thinking, how was that possible? She had misjudged me? Or a trick had been played on her. Something. It’s 2021! And finally, the older woman managed to speak: “Well, I’m glad you feel that way.” A bit surprised! But I’m forced to be politically correct. A couple of times, she informed me that she isn’t racist. At least once, she announced she supports Trump.
What does she really support?
For now, I’ve rattled the vision of a returning Dear Leader.
I don’t live in “Trumpland”—or at least, a state traditionally recognized as having voted for Trump. I do live in Wisconsin, Kenosha, an hour’s drive from Chicago. And isn’t that the problem for Americans lost in the dream of a white America. Betsy’s flag drapes the country on good days while, on dark days, old Robert E. Lee waves the Confederacy’s flag.
I hear Faulkner in the 20th Century refer to Southerners “‘clinging yet to the dream.’” Here we are in the 21st Century witnessing the response of Americans confronting the reality that is revealing a “‘time’” that was “‘altered to fit the dream.’” And it had been an intolerant dream, at that, for anything that doesn’t see eye-to-eye with its allegiance to the hierarchical positioning of white and economic wealth at the top of food chain. White and wealthy only entitled to the rights of life, liberty, and happiness. It makes for a home divided between the clingers to a fallacy and the challengers to the very notion of privileging a myth of supremacy based on race and wealth. I think of Trump hugging an American flag and all his followers clinging on to him in a last ditch effort to survive the challenge to their dying dream.
It’s was never an inclusive dream, but rather a nightmare for those it kicked to the curbside of their gentrified streets and the margins of their “American-only” narratives.
I was thinking about the return of something bigger than one man, even one Dear Leader. Actually, it’s not so much a matter of a return as something like a plague that, to conjure Camus’s Dr. Rieux, lies dormant and rises when the political temperature suggests fear has taken hold of white America’s imagination and rattled yet another major tenet of the dream of white supremacy—forever. I was thinking about fascism, something I’ve written about many times before.
When white America sees Blacks in the streets during a pandemic, when they see long lines of Black Americans preparing to vote, when they see organizations such as Black Lives Matter and Black Votes Matter, see individuals such as Stacy Abrams giving the battle cry to go to march, to register to vote, to go to the polls—it’s as if they were seeing the toppling of Robert E and the Old South as former enslaved Blacks rise up in places where Black people don’t belong.
We’ll take our country back! Take back our culture!
Take back, take back—but what was ever the white European when they first landed in the New World? What land belonged to them? What homestead? What culture was here on Turtle Island that belonged to the European?
Nonetheless, Americans persist in believing that the US was built by whites and, therefore, belongs to white Americans.
So Americans, in the 1920s and 1930s, when challenged by reality, looked to Europe, to Germany, to Hitler. To Fascism. To stacking the decks against Black Americans—only make it seem as if a wave of cultural corruption (with political assistance) is sweeping the nation. This corruption, reflected in the removal of Trump, the rightful heir to yield power over “a white nation,” is understood as an infiltration of socially democratic attributes that will not recognize white supremacy. The target need not be named. Distorted. Dehumanized and made ripe for mockery. And worse. For removal, in turn. Culturally and legally.
I revisited Behold, America: A History of America First and the American Dream recently when I was thinking about the “presence” of Black Americans in a novel considered by the literary establishment to be critical of the American Dream. And Fascism.
It is what Black Americans keep company with that a fearful and hateful America wants to erase. Our ancestors who built this country!
In her brief analysis of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, historian Sarah Churchwell fails to see the “two bucks and a girl” riding in a limo. These three caricatures are intended to represent three Black lives in the 1920s and the 1930s. What is understood here in such as way as to permit white readers overlook and thus dismiss three human beings?
I question the character, Nick Carraway, the storyteller, the one some critics consider an unreliable narrator. Unreliable, maybe, but he is certainly imitated in his way of dismissing Black Americans. In general, readers and critics alike assume The Great Gatsby offers no representation of Black Americans. What would Black Americans criticism of the American Dream look like in a narrative critical of greed and excess? What would Black people think about America’s flirtation with fascism?
We don’t know—at least, we don’t know from this narrative. Carraway, himself driving the car of the wanna-be-super wealthy Jay Gatsby, takes note of the limo, driven by a chauffeur, with Black Americans in the back seat. Carraway doesn’t recognize fellow citizens traveling on the streets of New York. Instead, he sees people who are out of place. He describes them as “Modish Negroes,” and not two men and a woman. But “two bucks and a girl.”
How many Americans would have laughed at this image? Like most Black Americans in my Boomer generation, I read it with a tinge of embarrassment. I wonder how many classrooms in America are led by teachers who wouldn’t understand the difficulty some students would have in keeping company with Nick Carraway? Reliability is the least of concern, for Carraway is reliable at conveying to the reader the prevailing anti-Black sentiment in America—no matter what era.
Fitzgerald’s “eye” in The Gatsby is critical of the Buchanans, their version of the American Dream. Carraway is critical of the excess and the cruelty, on display when he receives word that his working-class mistress, Myrtle Wilson is driven over by his wife, Daisy, who flees the scene. In turn, Tom Buchanan passes over Wilson’s dead body, figuratively, suggesting that even dead, the woman of a lower economic class, is of no concern to the Buchanans. Carraway, who was raised by his father to “reserve all judgments,” will attempt to distance himself from the murderous Buchanans, declaring them “careless people.” Just “careless”!
Long before Carraway reaches the end of this journey with “two old friends” of the upper crust in East Egg Island, friends, Carraway claims he “scarcely knew at all,” he’ll travel with the Buchanans to a social event in which Tom Buchanan might as well have given the Nazi salute while “violently” proclaiming the end of “civilization.”
“Civilization’s going to pieces.” He asks the gathering of like-minded if anyone has read a “fellow” named, Goddard. Carraway hasn’t read it. But, nonetheless, he is spending one of many nights in company with Tom Buchanan.
This Goddard has it right, Buchanan shouts; and he urges everyone to read “‘The Rise of the Coloured Empires.’”
Today, the number of people identifying with the Caucasian race stands at 12% of the total population. While the American Nazi movement will hold its Madison Square Garden rally in 1939, Marcus Garvey commences a “historic first” convention of the UNIA International of the “Negro Peoples of the World at that same location in New York City in 1920. As historian John Henrik Clarke writes, “the most important document that came out of this convention was the Declaration of the Rights of the Negro Peoples of the World.” The first event presented a way toward a less nationalistic and more globally-oriented democratic society. As for the former event, a lingering anti-democratic, anti-human rights, and anti-Black legacy that still infuses hearts and minds with hate.
“The idea,” Buchanan continues, “is if we don’t look out the white race will be—will be utterly submerged. It’s all scientific stuff; it’s been proved.”
Goddard has the answers; he’s “worked out the whole thing.” Buchanan continues, “it’s up to us who are the dominant race to watch out or these other races will have control of things.” To which his wife, the fragile Daisy, responds in a whisper, “‘we’ve got to beat them down.’” Buchanan will introduce his notion about the superiority of the “Nordics,” reminding the crowd that they are members of this special grouping of human beings.
“We of the Negro race,” Garvey told an audience, “are suffering more than any other race in the world from propaganda—Propaganda to destroy our hopes, our ambitions and our confidence in self.”
Buchanan’s racist rants seem not to touch Carraway’s consciousness. Carraway is as indifferent to fascist rants of Buchanan and his class of the wealthy and powerful as he is indifferent to the lives of Black people, millions suffering the degradation of colonialism in Africa or Jim Crow segregation in the US. His and Buchanan’s American Dream demands the subjugation of Black Americans, subjected in the 1920s and the 1930s to disenfranchisement laws and lynchings.
What’s so different from Buchanan’s image of civilization gone wrong from Carraway’s? The former is looking at the battle the American Empire will have to rage against the rise of Black people from colonialism while Carraway, notes defiance already with Blacks rising against the injustice of legalized segregation. Both glimpse reality! If not for the master narratives, scientific, cultural, and legal, if not for the control yielded by the “dominant” race to hold back the progress of Black people, the Caucasian race would be a minority—one among other races of humans. Carraway’s anger at witnessing an “uncomfortable” display of Black humanity is an attempt to protect, then, white supremacy. He does his part to present to the reader, much like Goddard, an image of civilization, (the American Dream), corrupted, by the inclusion of clownish Black people.
The resident of the “less fashionable” West Egg, would argue that for white Americans democracy isn’t compatible with the dream of wealth and power. The Buchanans went too far with the murder of Myrtle Wilson, but the race thing—well, that’s okay.
It’s okay for Jay Gatsby, fellow West Egg neighbor, and another wanna-be-wealthy and powerful like Tom Buchanan. The formerly working-class Gatsby, who fought and sacrificed everything to accumulated enough wealth and material goods to draw Daisy away from Buchanan, will lose his life for his worship of the Buchanans. But it’s Gatsby who takes the fall instead of the irresponsible and heartless Buchanans.
When Carraway returns to the Buchanan mansion, he finds the two have left. No forwarding information. Except, in the next community reserved for the wealthy, the Buchanans will be the Buchanans, spreading toxic lies and raising an American flags, saluting an American brand of fascism.
In 1925, when F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby was published, Malcolm X is born. May 19th. And also according to the Library of Congress, the sleeping car porters, organized by A. Philip Randolph, form a union. August 25th. Yes, there were seventeen Black Americans lynched that year. Since the anti-lynching bill was killed by filibuster in the US Senate three years before, we know that crusader Ida B. Wells is on the case. Blacks are organizing to have the right to vote. W. E. B. DuBois is educating as only he knows how to counter the propaganda against Black Americans.
We are America’s worst nightmare because of the torture and exploitation our ancestors endured. We keep company with our ancestors, and therefore with the best ideas, the best examples of bravery, resistance. It is what Black Americans keep company with that a fearful and hateful America wants to erase. Our ancestors who built this country!
America wants to kill us because of what we know. The company we keep.
Our ancestors say, no way!