I’m still surprised at the popularity of Mad Men. I’m surprised that people are opening “prohibition-era” bars. I won’t ever understand Jazz Age parties.
I would never want to go back to an age where we had to choose to stay hidden for our safety. I never want to go back to a time when there were two separate drinking fountains depending on who your parents were. I don’t see the purpose of lamenting these eras when women had fewer rights, queer people could be locked up, and the only brown people allowed in were entertainment.
And yet, there’s no stopping the constant stream of historical revisionist pieces that attempt to tell a story without diving into the ugly truth the framed the setting of the story.
We hear this same thing when politicians try to invoke political leaders of the past or exalt the nobility that government institutions once had. While it’s empowering to speak about the past as a better time than the Trump-induced nightmare that we live and breathe, we can’t cherrypick the past.
Making it Great Again
When searching for light in the darkness of the present and recent past, one of the strongest and most wistful touchstones for liberal Democrats to invoke is the greatness of FDR. Franklin Delano Roosevelt is upheld as one of the greatest presidents of all time because of a series of social programs that helped some Americans during the Great Depression.
As much as we’d like to see one benevolent and powerful figure in the past, when we invoke Roosevelt, we need to remember that he fought anti-lynching legislation. Much like the historical revisionism offered to Reagan’s antagonistic right-wing psychosis and his failure to respond to the AIDS or crack crisis, FDR has been whitewashed.
When we look at Donald Trump’s aggressive policy of locking up people who cross the border without properly registering, we see an analogy to Japanese internment camps, regrettably opened by FDR. The fact that history is repeating itself is a subtle testament to the problems of an ahistorical appreciation for the period piece.
However, over and over again, the refrain regarding Trump’s aggressive policy of locking up kids and families looking for sanctuary is “that’s not who we are”. Try telling that to the ancestors of enslaved Africans whose families were separated, to the Japanese who were locked up without regard for their affiliation with Japanese politics, to the ancestors of native tribes disbanded and separated. To say “that’s not who we are” is but another symptom of the same ahistorical drive that brings us the period piece.
It may not be who we want to be, but it’s who we are.
Following the treasonous press conference with Trump and Putin on July 16, 2018, a day that should live in infamy, many Democrats and liberals were touting the importance of our federal law and intelligence enforcement agencies like the FBI or CIA.
We cannot forget the CIA’s role in creating the foundation for the Taliban or the conflict in Nicaragua. The FBI’s antagonism toward Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is an often forgotten aspect of his biography when people invoke his non-violence. While we must absolutely and without haste call for the abolition of ICE, we must not be misty-eyed about the role that government intelligence and law enforcement agencies played in the past.
Back to the Plantation
Culture influences how we practice politics, how we socialize, and even our romantic lives. If the powerful can invoke an entire era without any of the messy entanglements of trauma, so will the rest of the population. When a president can tweet his way into the annals of history, facts and truth are an endangered species.
One of the ways that socializing has changed in the last few years is the popularity of the “prohibition-era” speakeasy. Investors and restaurateurs are making conscious decisions to create whole businesses that are based on an era when only white hetero-patriarchal interests were valued. Another irony is that they’re often opened in gentrifying parts of cities in an attempt to bring back the grittiness of the urban environment, despite being mostly accessible to the wealthy.
Probably the most upsetting trend is the rise of the “plantation-themed wedding”. While it’s somehow seen as an innocuous setting, it relies on the scariest form of cherrypicking.
Plantations were the factories where slavery was practiced, where profit was created by people with no consent over their lives, legally imprisoned, and physically bound to their work. It’s nothing but an act of branding, some creative landscaping, and sprawling porches that separates the horror of holding a wedding there from the idea of holding a wedding at Dachau or Auschwitz.
Who Would You Have Been?
In a time of “octoroons,” I would have been the help. I may have been allowed to work in the house or even below a richer, whiter man. In the best set of circumstances in the antebellum south, I’d be seen as a great example of how I can look an act as if I were white and to help dismantle the border of “otherness”.
We shudder to look at the past, to see how people were segregated and abused for having one drop of non-white blood. White people swoon over the cuteness of biracial children, disregarding how it marginalizes darker skinned children. Well-meaning liberal whites see a great future in the mixing of races without uplifting unmixed black children today.
Like many light-skinned biracial kids, I’ve been told, “well you don’t look Latino”.
I heard this less while working at a cleaning company scrubbing toilets for minimum wage than I heard it at a private liberal arts college I got a scholarship to go to. For years, I whispered my identity because no one believed me. I didn’t identify with it myself because I was worried about alienating the people who had drunkenly told me racist jokes; the ones who wear sombreros and mustaches on Cinco de Mayo; the ones only say “Puerto Ricans” with snide contempt.
I always wonder what I would have been, or who I would have been in another era. Would I have been allowed to get an education? Would I have to have hidden my racial identity in the closet? Would my opinion on political issues be of any value?
So maybe that’s why I felt on edge at my ex’s favorite new jazz bar in gentrified Brooklyn.
The Present is a Present
Living in the present might be difficult and frustrating, but it’s a gift. It may not be as ideal as living in the future, but it’s far more responsible than living in the past.
When you romanticize the past, you’re looking to Make America Great Again. While you might have better intentions, you’re fundamentally suppressing the experiences of black and brown people, queer people, and most women who would rather live in the present.
As frightening and as dangerous as the present feels, asking for anyone with trauma to live in the past is an impossibility. The inescapable bend of the arc of inclusivity toward the future means that a better world is not only possible but is bound to arrive so long as we refuse to obstruct it.