A Few Thoughts Above Plymouth Rock

by Ben Carter


For the last ten days, I have been visiting my in-laws in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Will, Sarah, and I have been staying in the guest bedroom in their second-floor condo overlooking Plymouth Harbor. The portico that houses Plymouth Rock is fifty yards from their balcony. It is a fantastic view. 

We’re here in Plymouth to enjoy family and let our family enjoy Will, the Best Kid Ever™. Rightfully, I run a distant third to Will and Sarah in terms of interest, ranking just above superfluity. So, I spend a lot of time in the living room looking out at Plymouth Harbor and the Rock below. 

As a tourist destination, Plymouth Rock is terrible. As one website said, “it never fails to underwhelm” and, “Two words inevitably cross the lips of first-time visitors to Plymouth Rock, ‘That’s it?’”   

It’s true: it’s just a rock and, unlike out West where the size, color, arching grace or precarious balance of the rock can impress, this rock is a smallish boulder of granite with “1620” etched on it. Much love to you, Plymouth, but come on. 

 Dudes from the Old Colony Club gather to fire their minicannon above Plymouth Rock on the Fourth of July. 

Dudes from the Old Colony Club gather to fire their minicannon above Plymouth Rock on the Fourth of July. 

Nevertheless, I can testify from personal observation that people throng to The Rock. Now, as I type, on a Thursday afternoon, there are 20 people down there. Students, retirees, families. All leaning over the railing and staring down at this dumb rock. Taking selfies with a rock. No town has ever done more with less. 

We know that The Rock is not the place the Pilgrims first set foot on what would become American soil. They landed in Provincetown first. And, the historical provenance of The Rock as the actual Rock is pretty suspect, as well. So, unlike going to see the Declaration of Independence or the Liberty Bell, it’s not clear that The Rock is even an authentic piece of history. 

Instead, people are drawn to the Rock not for its historical pedigree, but rather for the idea represented by The Rock. 

Here. Here is where we shed the old thinking and old ways. 

Here. Here at this place we slough off the too hot, too itchy, too oppressive garb of the old world. 

Here. Here we can become our truest selves. Here we will make our lives and conform them to our consciences and the will of our God. 

 Gratuitous photo of our two-year anniversary jetty walk. 

Gratuitous photo of our two-year anniversary jetty walk. 

It should be no surprise, then, that some of the people most excited to visit The Rock are those who have most recently arrived in the United States. Or, those most likely to live under someone else’s oppressive dictates. Visiting The Rock, as I do almost every day while I’m here, one finds a family from India speaking quickly about where to eat lunch, two women wearing hijabs asking a passerby to take their picture, children yelling in Spanish, a young man from Africa asking a tour guide a question. Last night, Sarah and I walked the Plymouth jetty to celebrate two years of wedded bliss. We passed two groups of people speaking languages at which we could only guess: Portuguese? Catalan? Quechua? 

America, thank God, will never look or sound like what it has before. Stasis has never been the American way. We replace a satisfaction with the status quo with a trip across the ocean. An irresistible striving defines our existence. (Well, that and our willingness to enslave and kill, pillage and plunder.) 

Thanks to the Trump campaign and the backlash to the Black Lives Matter movement, it has become painfully obvious in 2016 that a large swath of White America is (still) uncomfortable with brown and black people and America’s growing diversity. This discomfort leads them to the fundamentally unAmerican conclusion that what we need is more and bigger walls. It compels them to insist that “All Lives Matter” when, in fact, there has never been a question that white lives matter, only whether black lives will ever matter in America. An essential part of being conservative in America, of being a Trump supporter in 2016, is being white and nostalgic for a status quo that put whiteness on top. Or, if not on top, at least comfortably in the middle without much effort or luck. 

But, here at Plymouth Rock we can tell ourselves a story about our founding that is as relevant and hopeful today as it was in 1620: we are a people that embrace change, we are willing to endure profound hardships for the opportunity to live free, we can never be satisfied with the status quo when the status quo includes oppression, injustice, and unfairness. 

Like it or not, we are all on this boat together. And, Plymouth Rock—dumb, anticlimactic, potentially fake Plymouth Rock—reminds us that we are at our best as Americans when we are seeking a new world, a new life, a new justice for all people whether their ancestors came over on the Mayflower or they are just stepping foot on our shores today. What was and what is is not us. What will be: that is who we are. No wonder people flock to America's most hopeful, most forward-looking rock. 

For those about to Rock, I salute you.