Reflecting on a nation strongly divided on race, immigration and political ideology, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David M. Kennedy said people have forgotten the American Dream.
“This is the land of absolutely unlimited opportunity,” the Stanford University professor said in the new documentary film, “American Creed.” “No society can cohere over time if it doesn’t possess some myth that people hold in common.”
Premiering Feb. 27 on PBS nationwide and co-produced by WTTW-Chicago, the film stars Kennedy and fellow Stanford professor Condoleezza Rice, two friends whose conversations on what it means to be an American spurred the project.
“As I would travel around the world, the one thing that always attracted people to America was this idea that it didn’t matter where you came from, it matters where you’re going,” said Rice, the first African-American woman to serve as secretary of state. “That’s what holds us together, this great American creed.”
A white male and black female, they’ve set out to engage America in an honest conversation on divisions tearing at its fabric, the 60-minute film juxtaposing their own divergent stories with those of five Americans who found creative ways to bridge an American divide.
Among them is Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon.
“My grandparents on both sides, when they came over from the old country, they all wanted improved life for their children,” said Maddon, 63, who has worked to unite white residents and a growing Hispanic population in his hometown of Hazleton, Pennsylvania.
Maddon’s Italian and Polish immigrant grandparents settled there; his family still lives there. The man who would lead the Cubs to its 2016 World Series win after a 108-year drought watched as an influx of immigrants to the former coal-mining town pushed tensions to the brink.
Maddon, like Rice and Kennedy, believes in embracing diversity.
“Part of what makes America exciting is that . . . you are going to encounter people unlike yourself; ethnically, economically, politically; this extraordinary coming together of people from everywhere, every circumstance, every religion,” said Rice, who grew up during segregation.
A college education changed life for Rice’s father, the son of a sharecropper and grandson of a freed slave. “To be American is to break with the idea that you are a prisoner of your circumstances. And to accept that it’s not just about you. You really need to care about the collective,” Rice said.
The film’s premiere kicks off a multi-year, national public engagement campaign launching Feb. 28 with a curated website and visit to Chicago by Rice for a screening and conversation with public high school students — the first of many conversations scheduled nationwide.
“I hear more and more people say, ‘We’re coming apart.’ You have to understand the common aspiration, and I think we’ve lost sight of it,” said Rice.
Profiled with Maddon are school Principal Deidre Prevett, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Junot Diaz, Marine Sgt. Tegan Griffith and former President Clinton speechwriter Eric Liu.
“Condi and I . . . we’re not the same gender, or the same race . . . [not] the same church . . . or same political party. What we have in common is a shared sense of the fragility of our common purpose as a people,” said Kennedy, whose Irish-American father lost everything during the Great Depression and was left “broken.”
“The promise of this society is not always fulfilled,” Kennedy stressed. “And among the things we need to pay attention to is the gap between the promise and the reality.”
That gap spawned the fear and prejudice in Hazleton, Maddon believes. “There’s been no real economic boon around here since coal,” he said. “The city had lost its confidence.”
Hazleton in 2006 enacted its infamous Illegal Immigration Relief Act, penalizing landlords renting to undocumented immigrants and businesses that hired them. The act was ruled unconstitutional in 2007 and again on appeal in 2010. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case in 2014.
“The thing that really baffles me is the same group of people that were against our Hispanic brothers and sisters coming in, had grandparents that came to Hazleton from the old country. And when they came over, they were made fun of: ‘They didn’t speak the language. They dressed funny. What about the food? Their kids were dirty.’ All of that same stuff, their grandparents had to endure,” said Maddon. “You gotta call the madness at some point.”
Maddon co-founded the Hazleton Integration Project in 2010, a community center offering academic and sports programs to all disadvantaged children.
“The project has tried to help bring together the Hispanic and Anglo cultures. You want to make kids friends, fast? Put them on the same team. And I promise you, color of your skin, language barriers, what you like to eat, that goes away just like that,” said Maddon. “Make them interact with one another, and the parents are going to follow.”