American Never Great

One Woman’s ‘America Was Never Great’ Hat Reminds Us Not All American Experiences Are Equal

Krystal Lake was a 22-year-old Staten Island Bernie Sanders supporter who started receiving death threats after an image of her wearing an “America Was Never Great” cap went viral. Though her story is now a year old, it has been making the rounds on social media one again, and we thought we’d share it because it raises several issues still worthy of conversation today.

During the 2016 election, Lake grew tired of then-candidate Donald Trump’s slogan “Make America great again,” so she custom-ordered a cap that read “America was never great” and began wearing it in public.

In her estimation, “Mr. Trump’s slogan did not make room for bigger aspirations beyond the past,” and “he was dismissive of groups that did not fit his ideal demographic.” His demographic, it turned out, consisted predominantly of white, older men with lower educations.

When Lake went to her job at Home Depot the following weekend, someone took a picture of her in her cap and the image quickly went viral. The following week, Lake started receiving messages of hate calling her a “nigger,” telling her to go back to Africa and saying that America was great when “her people” weren’t in America. Of course, those last comments suggest America was great sometime in the early 1600s, before it officially became a nation and when most of the land was populated by Native American tribes and Mexicans.

“They were actually threatening to kill me over a hat,” Lake told The New York Times at the time. Her place of employment started receiving so many complaints that Lake’s co-workers eventually stopped answering the phones. The company did not fire Lake, though they did later state employees were forbidden from wearing items that expressed political views. Eventually, Lake returned to work and her life returned to normal.

In a video she made with the Staten Island Advance (above), she explained that she didn’t hate America, she was just trying to comment on what she thought would make it better:

“The message that other people are trying to send out is like America is this wonderful place, like nothing ever bad happened in the world. But it never was great, so I feel like it was a lie, so I wanted to show people, like, “Hey no. It was never great.” So when you go by that slogan, ‘Make America great again’ — when was it ever great?

During the election, even Trump’s own supporters couldn’t agree on when America was great: Some named years before women could vote, others named years when slavery was still legal. Eventually, Trump revealed that he thought America was great during its industrial and military expansion following World War II. But that was an intensely conservative period before the Civil Rights Movement when black people still had to fight for equal access into public places and when  LGBTQ people could be arrested, blackmailed and killed with few (if any) legal repercussions.

Later on in her video, Lake says:

“What I don’t like about Trump is, I feel like if you’re not the race that he would want or you’re not that ideal person — whether it’s sexual preference, if you have any disabilities, your financial status, your race, everything, all of that combined, or even if you don’t think like him — he’ll automatically write you off. He won’t support these groups as much as the groups that he will want to support.”

To be clear, Lake’s message isn’t really about Trump or the election so much as its about people who believe there’s only one defining American experience — that of its greatness — and a comment on the idea that if you disagree with America’s perpetual greatness, you’re somehow excluded from the majority.

A majority of American history textbooks we grew up with pushed a story that was largely a white, affluent, Christian narrative that tretaed the systematic targeting and elimination of people of color as a by-product of capitalism and democracy.

But as we become more aware of our nation’s inequalities, we also become aware of the validity of outsider experiences — from people of color, women, queers, the poor, people with disabilities and others — we feel the importance of incorporating these viewpoints into our history, politics and understanding of the world at large. Without them, our understanding remains incomplete, short-sighted and unjust.

The fact that people made death threats against Lake only show how utterly some people reject her and other outsider experiences as invalid. But all outsider experiences — including those of queer Americans — are valid and by definition different from the experiences of straight, white people. As long as we ignore these experiences, inequality will continue and America will never truly achieve greatness.