On two different and complementary narratives of hope in one of America’s darkest times.
For us American Studiers who are interested in the question of how hope can be found and kept in our darkest moments, it’s a good idea to examine closely the histories of particular such moments, and to consider specifically narratives of hope in them. I did that in part—if somewhat implicitly—in the series on bad American memories and how we engage with them, since most such engagements try to find the possibility of meaning and hope in the face of those dark histories. Those memories were generally tied to particular communities, though (if, as I argued, still broadly and nationally relevant), and so it’s worth examining as well our most collectively shared dark moments. And certainly at the top of that list, to my mind competing only with the Civil War in its breadth of impact, would have to be the economic, social, and communal nadir that was the Great Depression.
From literally the first moment of his presidency, Franklin Delano Roosevelt responded to the Depression by creating a narrative of a hope in an original and striking way. In the opening paragraph of his 1932 inaugural address, Roosevelt “first of all … assert[ed his] firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” The line, like the tone of the whole speech, was as somber and serious as the moment demanded; but it’s an argument for hope nonetheless, one that suggests quite explicitly that the absence of hope (the opposite of it, even) represents a far worse threat than any economic or social realities could. Nearly a decade later, Roosevelt extended and amplified that idea, making “freedom from fear” one of his core “Four Freedoms” to which all Americans and all citizens of the world are entitled. Roosevelt’s emphasis on fear, on the dark and negative side of the emotional spectrum, connects directly to the central point of my current book: that we can’t find genuine hope until we admit and engage with the darkest realities and histories, and the emotions that they engender.
Obviously I believe in the value of that engagement—but I also recognize the need, at our darkest moments in particular, for feel-good stories, for histories that can inspire hope because they represent the best of what we can be and do. The depths of the Depression produced many such stories in America, and none was more famous nor more inspiring than that of Irish American boxer James J. Braddock, whose epic comeback tale was recently portrayed in the film Cinderella Man (2005). Braddock’s story offered Americans hope for at least two key reasons: he and his family had experienced the same desperate situation and poverty of so many of their peers, making him a truly representative everyman; and yet he had literally fought his way out of those conditions, becoming heavyweight champion from 1935 to 1937 and embodying the sense that the future was not determined nor circumscribed by the worst of the past and present. What Braddock seemed to exemplify, that is, was what Americans and America could achieve once they had faced down their worst fears and found their way through them to the hard-earned freedom for which Roosevelt argued.
Next in the series tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Texts, takes, thoughts on hope in America?
9/19 Memory Day nominee: Sarah Louise “Sadie” Delany, the legendary educator and Civil Rights pioneer, whose book Having Our Say (1993), co-authored with her sister Bessie, is one of America’s most unique and important autobiographies.
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