Living in a country like Poland – with so short and long period of the last 20-something years same time, makes about places over the border or over the sea as the promised land. The West, including the USA, was always this heaven on Earth for many people.
Everything there seems to be so perfect, so right and so successful. Times are changing very fast, so is my opinion about the West. Since Poland’s economy is doing pretty good and has quite placid politics, there is much more space for critical glances on these promised lands.
When I was kid, the United States, for me, was always a symbol of success and freedom. I remember two or three pictures from my mother’s family album of my grandfather standing next to the American-style houses somewhere in Chicago. I believe they’ve been taken in the 1970s. Even on these small pieces of paper, sky and neighborhood were smiling. Then I grow up and I’ve seen all these news brought by TV and newspapers. The United States wasn’t that good anymore, but still I’ve seen magic hidden in between all these shiny skyscrapers.
And now is the time when I’m experiencing the US, walking on sidewalks of Chicago and attending to classes in one of the universities in the city. It’s time to verify all my previous ideas of America. I have to admit, I was very disappointed the first days of my stay. Nothing was that good, as I had expected it to be. The University, people, place. Now things changed, maybe not as much I would like them to change, but it’s better. Anyway, I want to share my thought about my American history class and the American history in general.
I attend the American history (from 1877) class twice a week – on Mondays and Wednesdays. Passing over the technicalities connected to the way of having the class. On last Monday, I got thought that the class is like a twice-a-week-confession. Probably the every second class we are talking about sins of the American state and society. Studying in Polish schools, I never learnt so much about all this historical details, what make the picture of the USA so dark.
I remember one of not many long talks with Kara about the American (and European) identity – how short history and lack of common past make American society so contradictory. I’m still not sure that this is good enough explain of all the problems of the USA society’s past and present. I wonder is it a problem of identity or something else? Historians are saying that people who were crossing the ocean to settle on the New Continent, usually were the most young, open minded and determined to achieve success.
In the country of freedom there was slavery, racism, inequality, segregation etc. etc. for many years. All of these problems are common for many countries. In the USA it lasted until 1960s (except slavery), so it stopped 100 years after the Civil War.
What shocked me the most were some little nuances that made problems even worse for the country. What are these nuances? People all over the world are scandalized with the brutal, inhuman execution of e.g. soldiers in Iraq. Not long time ago, maybe 40 years past, since some Americans stopped sending to their friends and relatives so called “lynching postcards”. Due to the American history lecture, on these pictures were shown executions (including cutting bodies into pieces) of African-American people and on the other side people were writing “Dear friend, What a shame you missed this event, it was so much fun!”. What makes it even worse, you can easily recognize smiling faces, pointing on a hanged person. There were even those who were taking severed fingers home as their souvenirs. These “events” took place in years 1883-1960, so it started just two decades after the Civil War, which forbade slavery in US.
I can easily hear guilty tone of voice, when the teacher is talking about slavery, racism, the Native Americans and so on. I wonder how American students percept this? Do they understand and treat it as the part of their history or just some random events in the past? However, the class is like 75-minute confession of a sinner.