By Irene Meltzer Richard
At this moment in the ongoing flow of history, there is a great deal of work we have to undertake in order for liberal democracy to thrive in the United States… Assuredly, we are not the first people to recognize that the American Dream is just that — a dream. However, like any dream we have, we do not have to let it vanish or banish it from our waking life.
Irish poet W. B. Yeats gave his 1914 volume of poems Responsibilities the epigraph “In dreams begins responsibility,” something that he attributed to an “Old play.” I’ve used Yeats’ epigraph as the title for this essay because I do believe that we, as so many others before us have done, can find in what has been called “The American Dream” the beginnings of our responsibility to participate in the ever evolving dance that is our constitutional inheritance.
During the summer of 2020, Jennifer Dean and I discussed collaborating on the creation of pieces for a new event series she and her partner Eric Rice were going to produce under the auspices of Undiscovered Works. They were interested in programming works specifically made to be presented in virtual space that would mix together live and recorded elements. They called their new event series Mixology.
Given the characteristics of Mixology, Jennifer and I came up with the idea of collaborating on a series of collage shorts that would focus on aspects of the entrenched mythology of America’s ‘greatness’ that form the zeitgeist of American exceptionalism. We decided to call our series “LET’S TALK ABOUT…” in order to encourage the Mixology audience and subsequent viewers to consider the pieces we would create as not only something to watch but also a jumping off point for conversation.
For our inaugural short, I suggested that Robert Moses would be the perfect subject not only because his skill as a ‘master builder’ was equally matched by his skill at playing political hardball, but also because — although long dead — he was once again in the news. Media outlets, who were intently covering the public outcry to remove statues and memorials of people with histories of racism and prejudice, included the news that Long Island residents were signing a petition for the removal of a statue of him that in 2002 the Babylon Village Public Arts Commission, with funding from a Suffolk County grant, had placed in the middle of a grassy park on Main Street just next to the village’s Town Hall.
There was more than enough material available for us to use. Using clips of archival footage; sourced images, some of which got manipulated; and spoken word we put together a short collage documentary with the intent of sparking a discussion about Moses’s legacy and its continuing impact on our lives.
We presented “LET’S TALK ABOUT… Robert Moses” in the first Mixology event that took place in August and it did indeed spark a lively discussion amongst the event’s audience and participants. Buoyed by the success of the Moses short, we enthusiastically embarked on the research for the second short in the series which we intended to present in the November Mixology event.
Everyday we were reading about how the wildfires in California were spreading —well like wildfire. There were thousands of acres going up in flames as a result of land mismanagement, climate change, and human folly. We had decided to make our next short about the disastrous intersection between what is a natural phenomenon and the machinations of human beings when our anxieties about the impending Presidential election became too intense to ignore. We felt compelled to contribute our voices to the burgeoning Get Out the Vote movement.
Jennifer, inspired by listening to NPR’s podcast 27: The Most Perfect Album — a deep-dive into the history and resonance of the constitutional amendments filled with off-beat stories and interviews as well as original songs for each of the Constitution’s 27 amendments — got the idea that we could use the Constitution’s Preamble as a place to jump off from into a paean for “We the People…” finding hope in the Myth of the Constitution that encourages us to exercise our rights as delineated in it as well as participating in the many struggles necessary to make our government an ever more liberal democracy.
And that’s the idea we chose to pursue.
The ninth episode of the NPR podcast was about the 23rd and 27th Amendment. As both these amendments involve the status of Washington D.C. (District of Columbia), the person profiled in the episode is Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, D.C.’s delegate, and how she approaches her unique role as a non-voting delegate to the House of Representatives (D.C. At-Large), who may sit on committees, participate in debate, and introduce legislation, but cannot vote on the House floor since the district is not a state and therefore has no voting representation in Congress.
Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton’s profile included an excerpt of her speaking on the panel Retreat from Equality at the Sag Harbor Initiative that took place October 11, 1987. During that year’s Columbus Day weekend, a group of well known writers, educators, ambassadors, businessmen and other luminaries, including William Pickens, Betty Friedan, E. L. Doctorow, and Kurt Vonnegut, as well as Eleanor Holmes Norton, participated in a 3-day event with the stated mission to bring together “black and white thinkers and activists, women and men asking new questions about our eroding American values of equality, freedom and community that has aroused intense and new commitment.” In the Retreat from Equality session of the Sag Harbor Initiative, panelists discussed the issue of minority rights.
In that panel, Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton said:
“It is very important that myths not be associated only with negative aspects of American life. No society continues to grow without its own powerful myths. One of the only remaining powerful myths in American society, with all of our diversity, is the myth of the Constitution. The myth that all of us somehow have bought in, whatever our religious or ethnic or political background, into that wonderful powerful myth. The fact that that myth has not always been real or true is quite beside the point. The myth of God is true for those who believe in God, even when there is war and famine and pestilence. It is the myth that makes people live through the pestilence so that they can indeed live full lives once again. The myth of the Constitution is in a very real sense the handiwork of black people who enjoyed it the least when there was nothing but racism — they believed those words. Because they believed them, they ultimately made them live. Black people therefore have to be at the forefront of those who celebrate the Constitution. Not because it is perfect, but because they have made it more perfect. One of the worst things we could do, in a time when so little brings us together, is to try to debunk or destroy the one powerful myth that continues to animate the society — the myth of the great American Constitution which has been copied all over the world and continues to drive us to a more perfect society.”
Those words that she had spoken thirty-three years ago became an essential component of the 2nd installment in our collage short series which we titled: “LET’S TALK ABOUT… Revisiting The Myth of the Constitution.”
Even though the November 3rd election is resolved, we don’t know what the next weeks, months, years will bring. The state of our country, our constitutional government, and our lives are in disarray and have been badly damaged. At this moment in the ongoing flow of history, there is a great deal of work we have to undertake in order for liberal democracy to thrive in the United States.
In the process of creating and working on our “LET’S TALK ABOUT… Revisiting The Myth of the Constitution” piece, Jennifer and I have been reminded time and again that the Constitution can be, as it has been, a powerful myth inspiring us to broaden and more fully realize the five basic principles set forth in its Preamble.
Whilst developing the piece, I’ve learned more about the Constitution than I ever did in school. It was like taking a ride in Mr. Peabody’s Wayback Machine although a time machine made out of original sources — from George Washington…
“I do not conceive that we are more inspired—have more wisdem—or possess more virtue than those who will come after us. The power under the Constitution will always be with the people.” — Nov 9th 1787
to Thurgood Marshall…
“The government they [the Framers] devised was defective from the start, requiring several amendments, a civil war, and momentous social transformation to attain the system of constitutional government, and its respect for the individual freedoms and human rights, we hold as fundamental today.”—May 6, 1987
with many stops in between and afterwards to our present situation which is, in so many ways, critical.
This deep dive I took with Jennifer into the Constitution’s inception and subsequent development has shown me that our country always has been doing a three steps forward, two steps back dance with the Framer’s declaration that:
“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
By no means am I denying or even minimizing our country’s disgraceful and bloody history. Without question, our country has been built from and is steeped in genocide and racism as well as the greed that seems to be an inherent part of a capitalist economy. Assuredly, we are not the first people to recognize that the American Dream is just that — a dream.
However, like any dream we have, we do not have to let it vanish or banish it from our waking life.
I hope that watching “LET’S TALK ABOUT… Revisiting The Myth of the Constitution” will give you a glimpse into the invigorating and revelatory time-traveling journey that Jennifer and I went on as we’ve explored what people have envisioned to be the meaning of that legal document which provides the framework for our federal republic’s government.
As Eleanor Holmes Norton also has said “You can’t win what you don’t fight for.”
The Short, Resources, and Artist Bios:
From this year onward to 2087 — the 300th anniversary of the day a bunch of coastal elites signed a document that has come to embody more than they ever dreamed of…
LET’S TALK ABOUT… Revisiting The Myth of the Constitution
Created by Jennifer Dean & Irene Meltzer Richard in collaboration with Eric Rice
2020 | USA | 4 min, 41 sec.
Special thanks to Keith Overton for contributing voiceover work.
ESSAY & FILM SOURCES:
The Bicentennial Speech —Remarks of Thurgood Marshall at the Annual Seminar of the San Francisco Patent And Trademark Law Association in Maui, Hawaii May 6, 1987:
The Constitution of the United States: A Transcription:
George Washington’s Farewell Address:
The Most Perfect Album: Episode:
Private letter from George Washington to his nephew Bushrod, dated Nov 9th 1787:
Retreat from Equality — Sag Harbor Initiative | October 11, 1987:
We’ve Got a Surprise For You, trailer for 27: The Most Perfect Album:
When Irene Meltzer Richard is not making stuff and spouting off on social media, Irene is a freelance consultant in the areas of audience engagement, event management, and partnership development. She has collaborated on campaigns for film and multi-cultural projects at a wide-range of profit and non-profit companies. Irene was born in the Bronx and has always called NYC home even when she’s residing somewhere else. She believes in epistemological modesty and living by the 5W1H: “Who, what, and where, by what helpe, and by whose ~ Why, how, and when, doe many things disclose.” — Thomas Wilson, The Arte of Rhetorique, 1560. Facebook: @irene.richard.77 – Instagram: @irene_ruthless – Twitter: @petitesoeur
Jennifer Dean currently works as an editor and has worked as an actor, director, and producer in theatre and film – and wrote a thesis on women making movies in America, interviewing a ton of incredible people (the2ndSexandthe7thArt.com). She is always happy telling stories in whatever way she can. jenniferdean.biz
Eric Rice NY credits include: Mother Night (dir. Brian Katz, 59E59); Incendiary Agents (dir. Peter Jensen, New Ohio Theatre); Sort of Like Julie… Only Worse (dir. Kelly Hutchinson, Abingdon Theatre); Orson’s Shadow (dir. Lauren Reinhard, Theatre Row); Riverside Symphony (dir. Hondo Weiss-Richmond, Robert Moss Theatre); Henry IV, Parts 1 & 2 (dir. Elyzabeth Gorman) and Henry V (dir. Melisa Annis) – RST/Prospect Park Alliance. Film: In-Between (dir. Kanchalee Wijakpaisarn); Stanley’s Thanksgiving (dir. Micah Paisner); To Live Forever and Fear of Heights (dir. Jennifer Dean); Just Love (dir. Charles Peirce); Peeling Apples on Your Own (dir. Nisan Dağ); Game Night (dir. David Ketterer). BA, Applied Arts & Sciences, Drama, Emphasis in Acting, SDSU (US Army GI Bill). AEA, SAG-AFTRA. Social: @riceunderwater. More info: www.riceunderwater.com.
Keith Overton is a New York-based 1st Assistant Editor currently works for Vice News Tonight. He specializes in non-scripted, short form and narrative post production work. Keith has edited a narrative feature length film, assisted on live to tape broadcast shows for MSNBC, Comedy Central, Youtube and Nickelodeon. In addition, he was an assistant editor for Global Citizen, Amnesty International Concert, and the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Keith’s credits include producer and editor for the Jean Grae’s sitcom “Life with Jeannie,” and Online Editor for Seasons 1 and 2 of TV One’s “Celebrity Crime Files.”