Imagination's End

The American idea is as promising, imaginative, and full of the unexpected as the land itself. The land represents freedom—the frontier, the ability to make a new future with your own bare hands. Even as I write this, sitting here in front of a bank of mountains and looking up at the very wide blue sky of the American West, anything seems possible. Actually, the environmentalists would say anything is possible—and that the possible is not necessarily a good thing. What is the future of the land?

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The American Idea
Scholars, novelists, politicians, artists, and others look ahead to the future of the American idea.

History is present here, too. When one sees names of these rivers and trails, one is reminded that indigenous Americans once trod on the land here, but that they were killed off, sometimes in the very name of expanding the American idea. The idea, as captured in the land, represents not only freedom but also its opposite. Ancestors were yanked from their own lands in chains and forced to help domesticate this land, so that it would serve some—not all—of the people.

But in living proof of the fortitude of some of our ideas, the chains were broken. Freedom emerged, and support for it has rung forth in monumental times. On January 6, 1941, Franklin Delano Roose-velt spoke about four essential freedoms in the world. (We often strive to plant the seeds of our ideas elsewhere in the world.) On August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. sang out, “Let freedom ring …”

I don’t hear the word freedom evoked as imaginatively or with such passion these days.

Another essential element in the American idea is “for all”—as in “justice for all,” or “education for all,” or “health care for all.” Too few of us respond to the notion of “for all”; too few can even imagine “for all.” We endanger the survival of the American idea by that failure of imagination.

The American idea is transforming itself—and not necessarily for the better. Even as I look out at this land, I find myself in doubt, about our environment and our society. Will we be able to ensure a future in which everyone on this land will be able to move from one valley to the next—to climb this mountain or the other one over there?

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Anna Deavere Smith is an actress, playwright, and performance artist.

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