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Conversations with America

Updated on April 21, 2011

Sweet America

Although presented chronologically, the following essays are not a summary of events designed to exhibit a knowledge of dates.  The are an exercise of engagement with American history as a problem, as a field of questions in which personalities, interests, and institutions may provide partial answers, but in which all solutions are, at best, partial and provisional.  Unavoidably, those problems in American history I find most interesting will be privileged over others, but these points of emphasis do not prevent others from asking their own questions and finding their own answers.

Because this is largely my discussion with American history, it is appropriate that relevant factors regarding my identity and upbringing be revealed at the outset.  I am a middle-aged woman, raised by liberal parents, widely read in American and European history and literature, with a distrust of power and the uses we find for it within institutions and as individuals.  The United States of America is my concern because it is my country, and it is the present and future setting of my son's struggles to achieve whatever it is he decides that he wants to do.  As a voter, I identify largely with the social aspirations spoken to by the Democratic party, but I am independent in my behavior, as I consider both major political parties at this point wholly corrupted by corporate wealth and a destructive elitism that separates them from my concerns.  I am white, not from purity, but from pallor; no one I meet suspects I could be anything else.  My roots in the United States are the only ones of which I can say I know something beyond familial myths and more-or-less false narrations, and they lie in Arkansas and Texas; however, my earliest memories are of ethnically diverse military communities in Frankfurt, Germany, and Virginia.  I am not a scholar, in that I have no piece of paper proclaiming that I must be taken seriously.  I do take the world and what we do in it, and have done in it, seriously.

I think education, at its best, reveals to us how little of which we may be certain.  It teaches us how to develop and articulate our questions, but also reveals to us the extent to which each apparent solution becomes a source of further questions.  The easy answers that claim to explain everything, explain nothing.  They are the masks our ignorance wears.

I will in these discussions cite sources and present suggestions for further reading drawn from books I have read.  I will cite sources when I had to look something up.  If I can discuss a subject based on that information I carry in my head, I will do so, welcoming any corrections others can offer.  Citing a source or suggesting that a particular author or work be read will not always indicate agreement.  It is beneficial to read our enemies as well as our friends; at times, it is most beneficial to read those we disagree with and find their value, rather than stay only with those who agree with us, and therefore have little to teach.  Not all the texts I use are history texts.  Poets, novelists, and short fiction writers all address the world and interpret the social, political, and material conditions they encounter, although they may transform the terms of that address within their presentation.

Now, to work. I begin with a brief on the natives of North America.  Romanticized by anthropologists, archaeologists, and intellectuals, the European encounter with the native in America, and the native encounter with the European, is a vital area of American history.  Indian policies in early America were a site of conflicting interests, not only between the immigrant and indigenous populations, but within those populations.  European colonists agreed that the Native American was a problem, but not upon what to do about them, nor even upon the nature of the Native American.  The indigenous peoples had much the same problems in coming to a solution to their immigrant problem, as the presence of the Europeans disrupted established ways in which people dealt with one another and ways in which things were done.  


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