Well, son, I'll tell you:
Life for me ain't been no crystal stair.
It's had tacks in it,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor--Bare.
But all the time
I'se been a-climbin' on,
And reachin' landin's,
And turnin' corners,
And sometimes goin' in the dark
Where there ain't been no light.
-- Taken from Langston Hughes' poem "Mother to Son"
This has long been one of my favorite poems. Hughes writes about a conversation presumably from a female parental figure endowed with the wisdom of living to her son.
"Life for me ain't been no crystal stair," while easy to invoke the contemporary imagery of the disparity between the 1 percent and the rest of America, I tend to view it in a larger context that can be applied to most Americans.
It is too easy to see "crystal stair" as reserved for those who are thriving economically. While that can certainly be a valid observation, it also blinds one to the possibility that the stairs that one climbs in other aspects of life are not made of crystal, but are torn up boards void of carpet complete with splinters and tacks.
I think of Santiago, the main character in Ernest Hemingway's "The Old Man and the Sea."
From an economic standpoint or his lack of success as a fisherman, I doubt anyone would suggest that life has been a crystal stair for him, at least not in the classical sense. But from the perspective of his indomitable spirit, his refusal to pair his optimism with his present circumstances he becomes the envy of many who may possess far greater financial resources.
Despite any difficulties, Santiago, like the mother in Hughes' poem, continues to climb, to reach for what is possible, both defiantly refuse to be identified by their current condition.
Does that not define America at it's best? What began as a debt-burdened nation that won a war of attrition against the greatest military of its time, but fast-tracked itself in record time to become an economic and military superpower.
For all of its virtues and vices, America has always stood as a beacon of hope. Movements such as civil rights, women's suffrage, and gay equality could not have occurred if America did not promote hope and possibility.
Like its historical antecedents, America risks destruction from within. Hope is being challenged by irrational fear.
That fear has grown exponentially since Thomas Frank wrote his 2004 bestseller "What's the Matter with Kansas?"
Frank explores how the state of Kansas went from a 19th-century liberal hotbed to a 21st-century brand of populist conservatism. It is a social concoction forged by opposition to so-called cultural issues and liberal elites that allows residents of the Jayhawk State to freely and willfully support economic policies that are antagonistic to the self-interest of many.
Regardless of how one feels about the Affordable Care Act, how can there be far more public outcry and political angst against the proposition of providing every American with health insurance than a pre-emptive war that was wrong about everything in the run-up, except Saddam Hussein was a bad guy? Is health care really worse than a war that was put on the government credit card, that did not have the moral decency to have a line item in the federal budget, left for our children and grandchildren to pay?
That fear is persuading many Americans to support the economic policies of the 1 percent when they have as much chance of being admitted to that vaunted fraternity as they do riding a pigeon to the moon with an anvil tied to its tail.
America has never been at its best when fear was at the foundation. It has always been the valor of men and women who believed in hope and possibility more than those who stood at the citadel of the prevailing status quo that has made America great.
Byron Williams is a contributing columnist.