Every schoolchild in America should have to read LeBron James’ marvelously hokey essay in Sports Illustrated explaining why he’s going home to northeast Ohio. Before that, of course, they should watch a brief clip of 2010’s infamous The Decision special on ESPN. Four years ago this month, the NBA superstar announced he was leaving Cleveland and “taking [his] talents to South Beach” where he thought he would have the best “opportunity” to win championships.
In one simple, 6’8” lesson, attentive students would grasp a fundamental tension that lies at the core of American history and culture: the conflict between the comfort of home and the lure of one’s dreams.
We Americans still like to think of our country as full of new beginnings, what sociologist Philip Slater once called “a culture of becoming.” Our uniqueness, as Slater put it, has always been “in our aptitude for change and our willingness to engage in continual self-creation.”
But a country that prides itself on its mobility—geographic, economic, and otherwise—is, by definition, built on a foundation of painful separations, discarded identities, and homesickness.
When James left Cleveland to win championships elsewhere, he was labeled a shallow, narcissistic ingrate who was turning his back on the people who had raised and nurtured him. Much of the country seemed to agree. But in his letter explaining why he’s returning to Cleveland, James took great pains to declare that home and family were more important to him now than professional success. He mused about the importance of raising his family in his hometown of Akron, 40 minutes south of Cleveland. “My relationship with Northeast Ohio is bigger than basketball,” he wrote.
I suppose all cultures sanctify the home, but Americans need to add that extra dose of schmaltz. If James’ experience tells us anything, it’s that—myths aside—following your dreams always has come at personal cost.
In our cultural imagination, home sweet home is where our genuine selves reside. Once we venture beyond its radius, beyond the roles ascribed to us by birth, we risk being accused of trying to be something that we’re not. We commonly employ terms like wannabe, poseur, social climber, and sellout to keep people in their place.
It turns out that the very concept of an authentic self is a product of modern mobility. The idea emerged in Europe in the 16th century with the end of feudalism and the emergence of a capitalist economy. Suddenly it became possible for more and more people to leave the place and class in which they were born. In new urban environments with mixed populations, people were no longer sure where they belonged in society or how they should relate to their neighbors. “The pleasures and possibilities of social mobility,” Boston University anthropologist Charles Lindholm has written, “coincided with potentials for guile and deceit.” In a world where former inferiors could pretend to outrank you, you put a premium on people’s ability to honestly declare who they really were.
For the longest time, Mexicans who chose to remain in their home country viewed emigrants to the U.S. with a mixture of admiration, resentment, and envy. They used a derogatory term for their U.S.-born cousins that meant something like “watered-down Mexican” and suggested these Americanized relatives had cashed in their culture for material possessions.
In her wonderful book The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson writes of the pressure many black migrants to the North felt when they made return visits to their family and friends who remained in the South. Her own mother worried about appearances as she drove back to her hometown of Rome, Georgia in her brand-new 1956 Pontiac. “No migrant could, none would dare let on that their new life was anything less than perfect,” she wrote. “They had to prove that their decision to go north was the superior and right thing to do.”
If the expectations and resentment of others weren’t enough, those who’ve gone off to seek better lives have always been susceptible to the scourge of loneliness. In the 18th and 19th centuries, American doctors widely acknowledged and took homesickness seriously, according to Weber State University historian Susan G. Matt. Newspapers published the tragic stories—and sometimes letters—of migrants who suffered from nostalgia, as homesickness was then called. In 1887, a 42-year-old Irish priest, J.M. McHale, reportedly fell ill not long after arriving in New York. “I cannot eat; my heart is breaking. … I am homesick,” he is quoted as saying. “My dear country, I will never set foot on your green shores again. Oh my mother how I long to see you.” Shortly after this proclamation, he lost consciousness and died. Nostalgia was listed as the cause of death.
Throughout the 20th century, scholars documented the psychological pressures of socioeconomic mobility. In 1956, University of Chicago sociologist Peter M. Blau concluded that the upwardly mobile can suffer from having to “choose between abandoning hope of translating his occupational success into social acceptance” by his new peer group and “sacrificing valued social ties and customs” of the peers he grew up with. In 1973, University of North Dakota sociologist Alfred M. Mirande found that “upwardly mobile persons are relatively isolated from kin and friends, while downwardly mobile person have the highest level of kinship participation and are not isolated from friends.”
Today, despite the triumph of global capitalism, individuals’ origins are still seen as the source of their authentic selves while their aspirational selves are vulnerable to accusations of phoniness.
The Pew Research Center’s 2008 study on American mobility found that most Americans have moved to a new community at least once. Jobs and business opportunities are the most frequently cited reasons people give for moving today. By contrast, three-quarters of those who have remained in their hometowns their entire lives cite the pull of family ties as the main reason for staying put.
LeBron James, while a whole lot wealthier than the rest of us, faced the same dilemma as millions of Americans, past and present. That excruciating tension between the tug of home and the allure of opportunity has been central to so many family dramas and the source of so much resentment and guilt. After more than two centuries of mobility, maybe what all Americans need are those T-shirts you see fans wearing in Cleveland. You know, the ones that say “Forgiven.”