An Island Point of View Nantucket Essays

America: a Promise, a Hope, & a Dream

essay by Robert P. Barsanti

America can be hard to see.

Oh, we can see the flags. On the Fourth of July, we have the red, white, and blue on every bicycle, tricycle, and baby carriage. The bunting hangs off of buildings and wharves. We celebrate the country in a rollicking, rolling carnival of hot dogs, ice cream, and beer. Somebody will host a firecracker fun run, somebody else will win a pie-eating contest, and then, in the evening, fireworks will guide us through the night with the light from above.

All of that is easy to see.

But there’s more to America then the one they sell at Walmart and Amazon. The other one works the squid boats on the horizon. Our nation is as tangible, and as visible, as gravity. For those of us who have lived here long enough to assume our inalienable rights without a word or a thought, it can be hard to identify all the blessings of our nation. We get tied up in tribal grievances and golf handicaps. The freedoms we enjoy are so obvious, so inalienable, so universal to us that we cannot easily isolate or name them. For many of us in line for hot dogs and beer, we live our lives in the invisible spell of American gravity; we can’t see it, but we feel it.

I have only recently left the classroom. Many of my students can tell you exactly what America means: to them, the idea that “all men are created equal” is as refreshing as firm ground under their feet. To claim the rights of “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” cannot be over-valued.

One young man crossed the Rio Grande with his father and his three siblings. Two years later, his father is gone, and the young man works and cares for his brothers. He can see America quite clearly.

Another student escaped their country in the trunk of a Toyota Corolla, with bullets firing overhead. The right to liberty became clear, constant, and steady when she landed in this country. These are children of people whipped, scourged by poverty and class, who left family and friends in Chinese farmlands, in Brazilian favelas, or in Ecuadoran jungles and came here.

Freedom is counted sweetest by those who have never been free.

If you look in the vans, pick-ups, and busses on this island, America is working hard and sweating. They mow the lawns all day then pick up a night shift at the

Stop and Shop stocking dog food. They live a family to a room.

After a season, they buy a truck and a trailer.

After a few years, they get together and buy a house.

Just like my grandparents did.

The economic dream of the country hasn’t changed, nor, if we are being honest, has the reality. If “all men are created equal,” they better get a paycheck. The sacrifice required has not changed over the years, just the numbers on the paychecks and the bills. For some, this life will grind them down; for others, it will raise them up.

There are those who were dragged here in chains, watched their children get sold off, and had their dreams redlined out of existence, whose descendents still see the promise of this country as distant and bitter. An evening spent lifting 40 pound bags of Alpo may eventually lead to a truck and a house, or it might lead to a lifetime of herniated disks, minimum wage, and “Thanks for applying…” notices.

To Douglass, to King, to my Italian grandfather, and to the migrant on the mower, America is the promise “that all men are created equal.” That promise is neither a right nor a guarantee. But as a promise, it can be written down, placed on banners, and recited on pulpits and soapboxes. It can be challenged, attacked, and supported.

But as a promise, as a hope, and as a dream, it exists.

It powers the mowers, it paints the walls, it builds the roofs. It preps the meals, it washes the dishes, and it carries out the trash. In the dark of night, when the rest of us are pulled to sleep, it works in the hospital, in the grocery stores, and on the fishing boats. Like any other dream, it exists as a hope that “we will run faster, stretch out our arms further… And one fine morning—” it will appear in our driveway with a big red bow.

It takes a lot of time to arrive, if at all.

The dreamers don’t take the Fourth of July off. Work is the finest praise this nation knows. Every hour on the clock, or under the table, is the slow downpayment on a promise that it can be better, it can be brighter, it can be easier.

For those of us fortunate to live a life that is better, brighter, and easier, we should look at all those working and see our ancestors. A hundred years ago, one of my grandfathers was prepping the meats and sauces at Anthony’s Pier Four while his future wife was working as a maid. My other grandfather was working two eight hour shifts for H.P. Hood. The slow blessings of their labor brought me to this glorious beach, with a chair, a family, and the prospect of a sunset in Madaket.

America can be hard to see. From Madaket, you can see it as it crawls the horizon on a fishing boat.

Articles by Date from 2012