Redefining the American image

By Samantha Bayne
Vashti Harrison speaking at East City Bookshop on 1/12.

On a whim, I stumbled into a small bookshop near the Eastern Market on a suggestion from an old friend. The shelves were neatly lined with books from all genres labeled with reviews from the employees of the shop, and chairs were lined into rows in the basement section. I accidentally had walked into an author’s event. Curious, I stayed to hear Vashti Harrison, the author of Little Dreamers, speak about her childhood desire to be represented in U.S. and world history. The lack of relevant stories led to her publish three books for young children about female and POC leaders and artists. Harrison’s speech connected to a very important theme from this week: our idea of American leadership must be redefined to better reflect our American population.

The politics section at East City Bookshop.

HIstorically, American leadership has been easily defined. It must be masculine: all of our Presidents have been male. Maybe it’s straight and white, too: 327 people in Congress are straight white males. Even the artists, writers, actors, and scientists who most quickly come to mind are white men. Even today non-white and female leaders are uncommon, especially in tech and business. Resultantly, young kids learning about American history who don’t fit the mold are left out of the story of success.

Our most recent general election doesn’t leave room for hope. We elected a straight white man who appealed to other straight white men through the utilization of identity politics. Lee Drutman says, “The cultural forces that swayed the election in favor of Trump are likely to remain. What doomed Clinton, in the end, was not that she appealed to racial and ethnic minorities, but that she paid them little more than lip service.” Hillary Clinton may have been a good first step in terms of solely representation of women, but she didn’t take time to make other marginalized populations feel included and heard. Her loss signified not only the continued force of the glass ceiling, but also the enduring exclusion of people of color from the story of the United States. 

Outside the fences and stringent security that protect the White House.

David Cantanese wrote that the Democratic Party is “capitalizing on an electorate that is becoming younger, more diverse, highly educated and female.” But this only works if females, youth, and people of color are represented in our government and our society. And it shouldn’t be an arguably unauthentic attempt by only one party. When we put up fences around our leadership positions, that leaves entire sectors of the population outside of the gates. Success shouldn’t be bordered. Our political system must take extra care to recruit diverse candidates who will accurately reflect the needs of the American people.

Lara Brown of George Washington University discusses the redefinition of leadership as “courage, curiosity, and compassion.” These attributes are not gendered or racialized. They can be characteristics of leaders of any identity. I would add one more attribute to the list: changemaker. Leaders should not be afraid to conquer all obstacles to make a difference. Making sure that leadership includes aspects that are not bordered or categorized to the powerful is key to making sure all Americans feel represented in the story of our history.

Harrison’s book tells the story of Bessie Blount Griffin, a black female nurse who helped patients recover from World War II injuries. In her treatments, she invented the feeding tube, which was revolutionary in allowing injured veterans become independent. When she tried to share her invention with the US military, as Harrison writes, the military refused. She was forced to sell her idea to France. Griffin should be considered a leader. Her story should be quintessentially American. She was a catalyst for change.

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