It wasn’t the middle of September of ’08, either. It was the beginning of October ’73, forty Yom Kippur holy days ago. There had been signs for any American who had cared to look at the cracks in the US dominance of the world economy ceiling. Rising unemployment, higher inflation, new monetary control measure, competition from a mostly rebuilt West Germany and Japan. The twenty-eight year-long run America had as the undisputed and undefeated leader of the capitalist world was on its way to a close, and ninety-nine percent of all Americans didn’t know or didn’t care enough to know.
No, the Yom Kippur War between Syria, Egypt and Israel didn’t cause the US to become more dependent on the rest of the world. But our support of Israel against countries from which we imported oil did lead to OPEC’s decision to deny us oil. Up to that point, our government had pretty much done whatever it wanted geopolitically, on behalf of containing Communism and American corporations. It was this week forty years ago, though, that truly began to teach ordinary Americans that there would be consequences for our foreign policy actions without regard for folks who lived at the blunt end of them.
I was just a couple of months away from turning four, but I do have vague memories of the week and month from four decades ago. Within a block of where my Mom worked, Mount Vernon Hospital, was a gas station, one that by the end of October had lines wrapped around the block as motorists in their six-miles-to-the-gallon guzzlers desperately waited for some petrol. It was loud and chaotic, from the little bit that I do remember. Fast forward to about a year later, when my Mom took me and my other brother Darren to the old Met grocery store on South Fulton in Mount Vernon. There, she complained about the $2.69 she had to spend on a five-pound bag of Domino’s Sugar ($14.53 in 2013 dollars). I remember her sighing about the high prices and the fact that her paycheck wouldn’t be able to keep up.
It would be years later still before I realized that the last of America’s easiest days as an economic and geopolitical superpower were during my years as a toddler. I did feel secure back then, not knowing about my father’s alcoholism, my mother’s insecurities about being a Black Southern girl living in and around New York City. I had yet to witness the violence embedded in my family, or in my neighborhoods, for that matter. I knew nothing of drug addiction or authentic Blackness, of racism and systemic job discrimination. I had yet to learn that the economic and educational opportunities that had been available to millions of Americans — almost regardless of race and gender — were about to become that much harder to attain and retain as I grew older.
Now, forty years later, as memories of the Reagan and Clinton years have faded, I think of America’s heady days, ones that now seem of lore. I realize that America could have even better days ahead. If we were to acknowledge human involvement in climate change and invest heavily in a green economy. If quality, well-funded universal pre-K to higher education became our reality, without creating one system for elites and another for everyone else. If we as a people finally said it was time to repair $3 trillion worth of infrastructural damage to our bridges and roads, to our sewer and water systems, and to our electrical grid. If we somehow decided to end our expensive wars on drugs and on Black men, on anyone whom we think (but do not know) may do our nation’s interests (if not our people) harm.
But I know that we won’t have those better days, at least not yet. Not with narcissistic politicians either lining their pockets with money or lining their minds with sugarplum hopes for the Rapture and Armageddon. Not with a media more interested in the political horserace and petty optics than in giving us the full story. And not with an American public more interested in Miley Cyrus than in funding for more psychologists in public schools.
It’s truly depressing to know how far our nation hasn’t come in four decades, virtually my entire lifetime. At least I know, though. For so many born after me — not to mention lacking self-reflection — they may never know what should’ve been.