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Staff Picks: Scene On Radio, Season 4

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Written by Martha Ball/ WVU Center forResilient Communities

“On a scale of 1 to 10, how patriotic are you?”

This opening question in the first episode of Scene On Radio's Season 4 podcast leads to questioning deep societal pride in the "great democratic experiment" that is the United States of America. But that is the point. How "great" is that experiment, how democratic is it, or was it ever meant to be so? Throughout The Land that Never Has Been Yet, named from a Langston Hughes poem, John Biewen and Dr. Chenjerai Kumanyika argue that the answer is no, the United States is not a democracy, it never has been, and it was never meant to be.

They argue that “democracy is not linear.” Through the 12 episodes, that is made abundantly clear. Beginning with the Revolutionary War, and ending at the present, Biewen and Kumanyika illustrate the intentional steps made by founding fathers, presidents, political parties, the press, the military, and the white, wealthy elite to make the United States less than the democracy it is touted to be. For African Americans, Black people, Native Americans, women, and for poor people, the systems of government and capitalism in this country have not been “created equal.”

One societal thread they weave throughout the series to describe nonlinear democracy in the United States is race. Throughout the relatively short history of the United States , Blacks, African Americans, and other people of color have been the targets of anti-democratic forces. Slavery, exclusion from New Deal policies, the Ku Klux Klan, no voting rights, discriminatory Supreme Court decisions, police brutality. Biewen and Kumanyika say these phenomena, along with many others, paint a clear picture of the non-democratic past and present of the United States. For, if a group of people are being excluded by the system not designed for them, which repetitively takes democratic freedoms from them, and are being attacked for asking for equality, is that a true democracy? It is also worth mentioning, a lot, and very loudly, that this podcast does an excellent job justly highlighting that Native Americans, pre-European contact, had an abundance of democracy that our freedom-fighting founding fathers took from them.

The dialogue about race is not alone in its historical reframing; patriarchy, poverty, the press, the military, radical beliefs, education, the very founding of the U.S., the Constitution, none are excluded from an anti-democratic analysis, and each is found guilty. This podcast asks you to reframe your understanding of American history, for how could Thomas Jefferson really believe that “all men are created equal” when he owned slaves? The answer is that he didn’t. I’m not saying that you have to listen to this podcast and immediately agree with every interpretation of events that they provide, but it is an exercise in your ability to justify your own beliefs. They are telling the truth, and their narrative is compelling, so challenge yourself. I cannot recommend it enough. As a white, American, woman it made me confront my own history as a member of each of those categories, and the role that I currently play in centuries old power structures. Yes, it may make us feel uncomfortable, but it is a necessary discomfort. Not only is this podcast a great history lesson, but it is the history left out of the mainstream, that most Americans need to be taught. I learned, I questioned, and I came out the other side stronger in my convictions, and I hope you will too. If you have opinions about debates over kneeling for the national anthem, police brutality, the Me-Too movement, gerrymandering, and voter suppression in the 2020 elections listen to this podcast. All find historical homes in the narratives told by John Biewen and Dr. Chenjerai Kumanyika.

Episode 4 of The Land that Never Has Been Yet says, “we need to be clear about who we were, so we can see more clearly who we are.” They teach us who we were, and it is up to us listeners to determine who we are. It is vital that Americans understand what they think they are defending, so there is no better time to educate ourselves on our own complex history, and this podcast is an excellent place to start.