“American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful, and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it.” – James Baldwin
“America,” he said. “A country defined as much by distance as culture.” – Alice Isn’t Dead, Chapter 10: Thistle
When I create an outfit, I usually start out with one foundation piece and then build around it. What grabbed my eye today was the bowling shirt I got from the Rock’n’Bowl in New Orleans, which is a very New Orleans type of place, a combination bowling alley, bar, and live music venue.
Bowling isn’t as popular as it once was – although definitely not dead – but to me, the sport suggests a kind of classic mid-20th century Americana, pin-ups and roller rinks and ice cream floats and bowling alleys full of smiling white middle-class families. Bowling is American. And also my bowling shirt kind of reminds me of a mechanic’s shirt. So I ran with that aesthetic.
What’s more American than posing in booty shorts on a car? Well, maybe not a Toyota, but you do what you can with what ya got.
Of course, the America that I’m referencing with this shoot never really existed, or if it did, it did so for only a few people. Current neuropsychiatric research says that what we experience as memory is really an act of creation, over and over again. Our memories aren’t home videos that we can pull out and watch, they’re stories that we tell ourselves, mutating in the retellings. And history is remembering someone else’s memories, every single moment in time a cacaphony of voices awkwardly crammed into a few sentences in a textbook.
It’s our presidential election year, which means that everyone is arguing over what (or who) the America we live in is now. America isn’t great like it used to be. America is the greatest country in the world. America is a nation of immigrants. America is working-class, blue-collar. America is middle-class, suburban, white-collar. America is the shining example of democracy and prosperity among nations; America is imperialist, racist, xenophobic, capitalist, and hates brown people. America increasingly is brown people. Everyone has their own version of America, created by the stories they’ve inherited from their families and communities and textbooks, the places they’ve lived in, what they do for money, how the police treat them, what’s on the dinner table, what dreams they had for themselves and others had for them. The Mexican-American day laborer that helped us move a four-drawer filing cabinet and told me Spanglish stories about having 20 siblings lives in a different America than I do, although geographically we’re probably less than 5 miles apart. My America is a foreign country to my parents, and we live in the same house.
The truth is that America is impossible. We talk about America as if it is a single entity, a real place, a coherent story stretching from the past to this moment, but there are as many different Americas as there are Americans living in it and the Americas that have come before – some whispering around the edges, shades almost forgotten, others brighter and louder in the retelling than they ever were in life. We are so vast, and empty, and full. Compared to many countries, America seems mostly to be made of space, and yet it seems that this swathe of land can hardly fit all the realities jostling within it. And somehow, every four years, our electoral system asks us to compress these millions of countries into one nation and collectively choose a person whose policies and promises embody what our Americas our, and shape what they will become.
When you really think about it, the idea of governing anything as large as this country seems absolutely ludicrous, much less trying to understand its history. And yet we do.
Bonus outtake with Merlin the magic dog (who, if you’re wondering, is wearing his election season bandana):