Old Myths and New Narratives

This morning my doctor’s secretary told me she doesn’t take my new insurance because it’s an”ObamaCare” plan. Really?
I had gone in for my regular BP check so I could get my prescription refilled. (My doctor requires that I do so every three months before she’ll call in the script.) The insurance I bought through the government exchange took effect on 1/1. I arrived at my doctor’s office a few minutes early so I could give them my new insurance information. It was then that the secretary looked at my card, turned to a co-worker & said, “Is it the QHP we don’t take?” The co-worker nodded & the young woman said she was sorry. I told her I’d checked the insurance carrier website and had seen my doctor listed as a provider. She said, “They must have some misinformation. We just had a big meeting about these plans. She doesn’t take any of the “ObamaCare plans….or Medicaid.” Incredulous, I walked out of the office of the doctor I’ve had since moving to Virginia over two years ago.

I don’t have insurance through an employer. I’m employed but like many folks these day, I have a job that doesn’t come with benefits. I was 50 years old when my husband died and just before he passed I asked him if he thought I’d need to go to work. (I’d been caring for him pretty much full-time for the previous two years.) He said I might need to in order to get insurance. He had no way of knowing then that the economy would crash soon after, that thousands would be laid off and that it would become nearly impossible for someone over 50 to get a job. I, like other people my age, finally got two part-time jobs, neither of which offer benefits but that together just barely cover the cost of my individual health insurance. I’m grateful to be working and consider myself lucky because my daughter, a lawyer with crushing student loan debt, has a full-time “consultant” position which doesn’t offer benefits either. And all of her co-workers are in the same boat. At least I’m not young, trying to raise a family while facing years of loan payments.

Walking back from my doctor’s office I was thinking about our national narrative, the myth, in its most basic form, that this is a country that is good to you and for you if you work hard. I work hard, my daughter works hard and so do all our friends. My husband worked hard and thought he had prepared enough to provide for me. But let’s be honest, the truth is the narrative has really always only applied to some people. For one thing, this economy favors business owners, small and large. The right of small business owners not to pay for employees insurance is championed more than the right of employees to have insurance. Additionally, there’s been a paradigm shift in this country that we have to acknowledge. There used to be a middle class that worked for the large businesses. The most recent recession pared off many of the workers in the middle class for a variety of economic reasons I won’t go into here but all of which involve corporate bottom lines. So big business is healthier, and the economy is improving but who paid for it?

Mario Cuomo’s funeral was today. I remember as an idealistic young woman being absolutely mesmerized by his 1984 Democratic National Convention Keynote Address. He spoke so eloquently about the U.S. as a country that is like a family that take’s care of its members. He said:

“…we can make it with the whole family intact, and we have more than once….wagon train after wagon train…the whole family aboard, constantly reaching out to extend and enlarge that family; lifting them up into the wagon on the way…”
Sure, he was a smart politician who understood that the American Dream, land of the free, ‘anyone can succeed on their own merit’ was a myth but he believed in a real middle class. In that speech he also said:
“…if we do not forget that this entire nation has profited by these progressive principles; that they helped lift up generations to the middle class and higher; that they gave us a chance to work, to go to college, to raise a family, to own a house, to be secure in our old age and, before that, to reach heights that our own parents would not have dared dream of.”
We have always been sold, by politicians and advertisers, a vision of an America that doesn’t exist. But today we are a nation of haves, have-nots and a lot of people struggling with student loan debt, poor employment choices insecure employment situations, ridiculously expensive health insurance premiums and leaders who tell us anything but show us no compassion. I wonder if that’s what my ex-doctor’s group talked about in the big meeting.

History Lessons

I’m taking advantage of being in the southern U.S. this summer by giving myself some American Civil War history lessons. I’ve decided that rather than WWII, the Civil War is the one that should be called “The Big War”. Although it didn’t involve other countries, I think it had more of a lasting impact on this country. Maybe it’s because I’m African-American that, in my mind, it’s the war that is the most significant in U.S. history. We still live with some of its obvious and not-so-obvious symbols.

Civil War Cemetery in VA

But it’s a hard war to completely understand. Multi-layered, prickly and complex, it was a briar patch of a war. I don’t know about you but I was only taught the superficial ” blue and gray, we freed the slaves” aspects in primary and secondary schools. (I was too busy partying and trying not to flunk out  to take challenging classes in college.) The biggest hole in my knowledge though, and the reason I’m undertaking these lessons is because I come from a family that ran from the enormous effects of slavery and the Civil War. I don’t just mean my family was part of the Great Migration although they were. I mean that the familial response to this part of American history was to deny and detach from the effects. All African-Americans have to face the legacy of slavery and we have varying ways of doing it. Some in my family chose to detach because they believed in the American Dream and so to believe they had to deny the things that made it untrue. They wanted to endeavor, achieve or fail and believe that the outcomes were the result of their own doing. I’m of the “Outliers” school of thought. “It’s not enough to ask what successful people are like…It is only by asking where they are from that we can unravel the logic behind who succeeds and who doesn’t.”* I believe that the American Dream has a subtext in which slavery is a large factor. But some of my family who were actually from the south (but who have passed on) denied that subtext, choosing instead to detach from the past and redefine themselves. Some went so far as to change the birth cities to ones in the north on their birth certificates, much like when Jews anglicized their last names. They didn’t forgive or tolerate those who acknowledged what history had done to them. And so, much of my family history was concealed and then forgotten.

I choose not to deny and detach. I want to uncover and learn as much about the history that was too painful for many of my ancestors. So while I’m here in the south I’m visiting the sites, reading, reflecting and trying to understand more about the Civil War. And I’m honoring family who lived here before me. I don’t think they had the choices that I do.

Next week I’m going to a living history program. They’ll be asking attendees their thoughts on the effects of the War. I’ll let you know about the responses in a future post. What are your thoughts?

(Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Galdwell, Little, Brown & Co., 2008. * I did read the book but to be honest, the quote is from the summary on Wikipedia. I left my copy at home.)