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Social Studies

Civil Rites

By Vincent Williams | Posted 1/25/2006

So, this is what I’ve figured out over the last couple of weeks—the biggest scam in America doesn’t have anything to do with oil or war or stocks. The biggest scam in America is kids’ parties. Oh, they got a whole racket going at Party City and Toys R Us and the mall. There are streamers and ribbons and hats and stickers and plates and cups and, oh my god, all kinds of crap. And then, it all has to match and be all Baby Einstein or Dora the Explorer or some other kind of thing on Nickelodeon. I swear, I’ve spent the past month following my wife around in these stores, and I feel like we’re getting ready to invade Paraguay or something. Apparently, some balloons and some cake just don’t cut it for today’s discerning birthday party. And when did it become the thing to do to have favors for all the guests? It’s like a little wedding or something.

And, lemme tell ya, that whole wedding thing is another huge scam. Oh, there’s tablecloths and colors and menus and playlists and, yeah, them damn favors. Oh, the many, many months of minutia and attention to detail that’s involved to pull off the pomp and circumstance of, uh, an hour. Yeah . . . if I ever see another candle laver, I’m going to break out in hives.

All jokes aside, that’s how we roll here in the ol’ U.S.A. We do things really big and really extravagant. We like bright lights and doves and sparkles. We’re big on hats and streamers. I swear, the Fourth of July fireworks get more garish, the New Year’s Day parades get bigger, and the White House Christmas tree gets brighter every year.

I think I know why, too. I figure it all has to do with the very essence of what makes Americans unique in the world. See, the big selling point of the American Dream is that we can all start from scratch. Whether your ancestors came over through Ellis Island, in the bowels of a slave ship, or on the Mayflower, we all have the opportunity to be anything we want.

Now, of course, that’s just in theory. In practice, we all know life doesn’t very often work out like that. After all, if our president’s last name was Jenkins or Hernandez instead of Bush, he probably wouldn’t be president. Still, in other places, only the son of the king becomes the king and the son of the guy who cleans shit is probably going to grow up to be a guy who cleans shit. According to the brochure, anyone can grow up and become president in the United States, because the past doesn’t matter—only the future.

The only problem with this egalitarian dream is that, as a country and a culture, we don’t have the weight and heft of history that other societies do. Other places have traditions and rituals that are hundreds of years old. We’re just sort of making it up as we go along. I mean, in my family, when we were kids, we would sing, a round of “Happy Birthday” to each other, followed by, of course, a round of “How Old Are You Now?” Then we would end with a rousing rendition of “May the Good Lord Bless You.” Now, sure, that is a tradition, but when you compare that to thousand-year traditions of Senegal or Israel or Japan, well, it’s a little daunting putting our practices in the same room.

And even when we honor our particular ethnic pasts through costume or practice, it always seems like we’re playing dress-up for that particular moment, doesn’t it? We don our traditional garb for bar mitzvahs and we jump brooms, but once it’s all over and the smoke clears, everybody’s wearing jeans.

Still, regardless of the very real issues of class, race, gender, and other features that hinder the reality of the American dream working, to a great degree, creating a culture from scratch has led to some of the finest accomplishments in human history. If we didn’t have the impetus to create our own cultural landscape, there would be no jazz or comic books or quilts or my beloved hip-hop.

So we don’t have elaborate wedding rituals or birthday rituals or, really, rituals of any type. We make them up as we go along and, to a certain degree, we overcompensate for the lack of history with huge displays of ribbon and firecrackers and stuff. And I think that’s a fair exchange, although I don’t really understand why we got to have a special friggin’ tablecloth for a baby. But that’s me. H

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