During the holiday season, it seems like we’re constantly being invited to reminisce on happier pasts.
With apologies to Grease, The Fonz, American Graffiti, and other fantasies spawned in the ‘70s to look backward, there wasn’t a magical period in U.S. history when the nation experienced a widespread period of bliss and harmony. And for many people, the Disney movies of the ‘50s and early ‘60s that solidified that myth weren’t a simulacrum of real life. Ask the braceros who’d been invited to fill in the worker shortage at the beginning of WWII and by the early ‘60s lived in squalid camps and worked under conditions that eventually led to their organizing the United Farm Workers. Ask the west coast Japanese who continued to feel the impacts of loss and exclusion for decades after they returned from the WWII internment camps. Ask the LGTBQ+ folks who lived in daily fear of losing everything, including their lives, if they even peeped outside their closets during that era. Ask Emmett Till’s family – or ask any Black family who lived through that time – how safe they felt when they left the communities where they’d been purposely segregated. The list could go on, but you get the point. The myth of a post-WWII period of “happy days” is just that: a myth.
The myth comes from the post-war economic boom that was fueled by vast governmental spending and a resulting private sector economic expansion. Since the nation typically equates economic prosperity for dominant groups with happiness, there’s a belief that economic expansion of that era must’ve created happy times for all. But to see how the myth breaks down, you only need to look at individuals in smaller groups instead of the macroeconomics. My dad was in WWII, but he wasn’t in the armed services. When he went for a physical at the recruiting station, they discovered that he had an enlarged heart. Despite being a college football standout a few years before, his heart condition meant he couldn’t enlist. So he went to the Red Cross and was hired to go to the South Pacific as a Red Cross director. He wasn’t allowed to serve as a soldier, but he wanted to contribute and serve however he could.
In and of itself, that’s not remarkable. After all, millions of people volunteered in that era. What I find remarkable is that Black folks like my dad were willing to be part of an effort to maintain a society that devalued and, in many ways, sought to harm them. It wasn’t just my dad. The 442nd Regimental Combat team in WWII was comprised of Japanese American men, many whose families were confined to internment camps. The 92nd Infantry Division of segregated African American men fought in the nation’s earliest efforts to free Europe during the liberation of Italy. Black Navy sailors in Port Chicago, California loaded munitions onto ships with no training or safety measures, even after a preventable explosion killed over 300 men. People of color volunteered their lives in service to a nation that would go back to devaluing them at war’s end. For my father, it meant coming back to the U.S. for a few years and then expatriating to Ethiopia where he could work for the Ethiopian government and be treated as an equal.
It wasn’t just the people of color who were damaged by the war and faced the consequences of their experiences in the period that’s mistakenly called the “happy days.” The people who returned from WWII to experience the economic boom all had experienced the horrors of events where millions lost their lives. I remember in the 1990s when my in-laws were at a Catholic mass to honor their 50th wedding anniversary. As they went forward and knelt to receive communion, my father-in-law Art began crying. It was touching to see him emotionally affected in that moment, something I’d not seen him do in the years I’d known him. I assumed that the emotions arose from remembering so much that had happened in those 50 years. As we talked at the reception that followed, Art explained that his reaction was from remembering all the men who fought alongside him when they fought too many battles on too many Pacific islands. At that moment, he was overcome thinking about people who never came home and never had the chance to live the life he’d lived.
I knew that those images haunted Art. In the years immediately after the war, as he was becoming a new husband and father, he was hospitalized periodically with what was then called “shell shock” and now is understood to be post-traumatic stress disorder. He was expected, after each brief hospitalization, to return to his job, his family, and his community to pretend nothing had happened. I know what it was like to be 18 and trying to decipher how to be an adult and find life direction. I cannot begin to understand what it must have been like for a generation of 18-year-olds to find themselves daily in circumstances where they could lose their life at any moment while having to take other people’s lives to survive. Then after a short boat trip, they were sent home to live. The trauma of war stayed with that generation throughout all the years I’ve known them as they struggled with alcohol, being abusive, or became so narrowly focused and goal driven that they risked all parts of their life to reach their aims.
The people of that generation have been called heroes, or, as Tom Brokaw termed them, “The Greatest Generation.” Those are convenient tropes, but as literary devices often do, giving a simple label (especially to a generation of people) misses the complexity of what’s really happening. Both my dad and father-in-law were deeply impacted from the war and they both had to grapple with the effects of the war throughout their lives. For my dad, that meant working full time, and being vigorously political with his time after work and on weekends. He spent little time not driving himself, and he died at 54 of a heart attack. For my father-in-law, it meant having very few close friends and being obsessive about his religion – so much so that when he was older and had dementia, he would wander to the church a mile away in the middle of the night looking for a priest to hear his confession. I knew of few people of that generation who escaped unscarred. And many passed those scars along to their children through overindulgence, demands for high achievement, physical and emotional abuse, or obsessions with material gains – pursuit of unhealthy behaviors to fill the damages in their lives. The “greatest generation” struggled to find itself. Read Alan Ginsburg’s poem Howl and you’ll glimpse some of their struggle. Although some of the adults from that era lived with healthy relationships and healthy, balanced lives, in my experience, the well-balanced in that generation weren’t normative.
The happy days mythology didn’t fit their children’s lives either. I can look to my own experience during the era as an example. I’ve written about this, and I’ve spoken about it in presentations, but it seems worth repeating here: I’m proud that I graduated in the lowest third of my high school class. When I graduated, my high school posted the list of their graduates publicly; and they listed graduates in order of GPA. I was in the lowest third of that list. When I say this during a presentation, I assume that people are imagining that my current pride comes in my accomplishments since that time. After all, I went to earn advanced degrees from institutions where there’s some selectivity. However, that’s not why I’m proud of my lack of achievement in high school. Lots of people earn lots of degrees, and I’m just lucky enough to be one of them.
During my presentations, I explain that fortune. I also explain that my pride comes in appreciating who I was as an adolescent. I was in an educational system and a community that undervalued me as a human and didn’t understand what I could contribute. The entire system was rigged to favor only certain people. I’d have had to change who I was to be able to have even the limited success that the system would allow me to have. I’m proud that I saw that in my youth and opted out. My experiences in that community and its education system eventually fueled my drive to participate in making education something different than what I’d experienced. But at the time, my intuitive reaction was to produce the minimum so that I could get away from both the schools and that community as soon as I was old enough. That intuitive reaction allowed me to preserve who I am. To do anything else would’ve forced me to become something less than that. It was later, as I became an educator, that I gained the tools to fight oppression effectively. So I remain pretty proud of that kid who reacted healthily to oppression by refusing to participate. In my “happy days,” that was the right choice. That’s a choice that I see young people still making as schools and schooling still haven’t lived to their promise of educating all equitably.
The happy days myth keeps some of us from seeing the struggles that were very real then and that keep some of us looking longingly backward instead of seeing the flaws and looking to solutions. It’s what fuels fables that the U.S. was once “great,” and that we should strive to return to that greatness. It’s what has some states and communities reaching backward to regain a past that didn’t exist for many people. The “don’t say gay” rules in Florida and the “anti-woke” legislation that states are considering and passing errantly build from these myths. The backlash that has produced these laws comes from a wholehearted belief in the happy days myth and that anyone who doesn’t believe the myth is anti-American or someone who hates the country and is attempting to distort the past.
Mythology is good when it teaches us lessons: Icarus flying too close to the sun; Oedipus’ hubris; the dangers of Narcissus’ self-absorption; and so on. But when we substitute mythology for history, we lose the opportunity to examine what’s happened and learn the past’s lessons. If the purveyors of our popular television, movies, and novels want to use the familiarity of the past as an easy entry to storytelling, let’s appreciate that as storytelling, not as history. Let’s not confuse what we see, hear, or read in those accounts as being an accurate representation of life to which we should aspire to return.