On April 28 2022, the Facebook page “Vagina Devil Magic” shared an image of a “You Remember the Real America” handbill, dated June 1980 and featuring eerily familiar political sentiments — 42 years later.
The text on the flyer read exactly like an email forward:
YOU REMEMBER THE REAL AMERICA
If you remember …
When riots were unthinkable.
When you left front doors open.
When socialism was a dirty word.
When ghettos were neighborhoods.
When the U.S. Flag was a sacred symbol.
When criminals actually went to jail.
When you weren’t afraid to go out at night.
When taxes were only a necessary nuisance.
When a boy was a boy, and dressed like one.
When a girl was a girl, and dressed like one.
When the poor were too proud to take charity.
When the clergy actually talked about religion.
When clerks and repairmen tried to please you.
When college kids swallowed goldfish, not acid.
When songs had a tune, and the words made sense.
When young fellows tried to join the Army or Navy.
When people knew what the Fourth of July stood for.
When you never dreamed our country could ever lose.
When a Sunday drive was a pleasant trip, not an ordeal.
When you bragged about your hometown and home state.
When everybody didn’t feel entitled to a college education.
When people expected less and valued what they had more.
When politicians proclaimed their patriotism, and meant it.
When everybody knew the difference between right and wrong.
When things weren’t perfect; but you never expected them to be.
When you weren’t made to feel guilty for enjoying dialect comedy.
When our Government stood up for Americans, anywhere in the world.
When you knew that the law would be enforced, and your safety protected.
When you considered yourself lucky to have a good job, and were proud to have it.
When the law meant justice; and you felt a shiver of awe at the sight of a policeman.
When you weren’t embarrassed to say that this is the best country in the world.
When America was a land filled with brave, proud, confident, hardworking people!
In a post, a page contributer mused in part:
I remember going through my mom’s stuff when I moved her in with me and finding this in an old folder of my dad’s stuff from The American Legion. My mother was a lovely, open-minded, startlingly progressive woman her whole life. My father….was the opposite, so this was unsurprising.
This “You remember the REAL America” piece is from 1980. And it would be hilarious if it wasn’t so goddamn sad, and if it wasn’t proof from a time capsule that people like this, the people who long for “the real America” have always existed and have always lashed out at change. They’ve always been terrified.
It’s one thing to see aged bigots cry out for an America that truly never existed. Things WERE different when they were kids because they could get away with the subjugation of folks they saw as lesser with fewer or, more likely, no consequences.
But so many of these folks now, both the elderly and the younger white supremacists TODAY, are longing for 1980 because they’ve idealized it into some pearly white, hetero, nationalistic oasis the exact the same way people were crying for this version of THEIR America FORTY-TWO years ago.
Clearly, there were a few elements to unpack in order to understand “You Remember the Real America.”
‘You Remember the Real America,’ on the Internet
In 2022, handbills and flyers were largely (but not entirely) replaced by Facebook shares, tweets, and email forwards. But in 1980, material like “You Remember the Real America” often circulated both within and outside the context of advertising.
It seemed likely that at least a few versions of the “You Remember the Real America” handbill made it to the internet, so we searched the first line in quotes: “When riots were unthinkable …”
A Google Search returned a mixed bag of “about 30” total results, the top result an October 8 2008 page on a news-like site called South Hill Enterprise attributed to Frank Nanney, Jr. The reemergence of “You Remember the Real America” on the internet coincided with the presidential campaign of then-Senator Barack Obama (which started in early February 2007 and ended with his election on November 4 2008).
Another iteration was from the message board Crossbow Nation, published to a thread in May 2011 — that version elided the “dialect comedy” line. Google’s second result was an October 2018 Facebook post by the page The Good Old Days, and the text was largely unchanged. A similar (but not identical) version was published on SunJournal.com in December 2019, attributed to Jan Dolcater:
Can you remember when you never dreamed our country could never lose? When you went to church and found spiritual consolation, when people knew what the Fourth of July stood for, and when you took it for granted that the elderly and the clergy were to be respected.
When you didn’t feel embarrassed to say that this is the best damned country in the world, when socialist was a dirty word, and when liberal was by all.
When taxes were only a nuisance, when the poor were too proud to take charity, when Protestants and Catholics thought enough of their own beliefs to argue without rancor about them, and when you knew the law meant justice.
When the songs you heard actually had a tune and lyrics, when you could get away from it for a time, and when you bragged about your home state and hometown.
Finally, a version was shared to an “oldies” website in November 2011. From there, other links led to books and academic papers that made mention of the missive — but its origin was not immediately apparent.
Several commenters on the April 2022 Facebook iteration asked about what constituted “dialect comedy,” and how that fit in with the other bullet points mentioned.
Wikipedia quickly clarified why those agreeing with and spreading the missive might bristle at being “made to feel guilty for enjoying dialect comedy”:
Dialect comedies are a genre of radio (and later television) sitcoms that were popular between the 1920s and the 1950s. They relied on the exaggerated and highly stylized portrayal of stereotypes, usually based on ethnic humor. The genre has its roots on the vaudeville stage and in the minstrel shows that became popular in the 19th century. The ethnicities of the actual actors portraying the dialects did not have to match the characters; while much Jewish dialect comedy was created and portrayed by actual Jews, other dialect comedies, such as those involving blackface, were often not.
Jewish performers such as George Burns, Jack Benny and Milton Berle had shows that were arguably forms of dialect comedy. Each of these comedians used cultural markers of Jewishness such as incorporating Yiddish words and phrases into their dialogue and referencing places that were known for being Jewish neighborhoods such as New York’s East side. Comedians like Berle and others had come out of the same vaudeville tradition as the minstrel performers and as such did their shows in a classic variety format which included characters who were often based on racial and ethnic stereotypes. As late as the 1990s, the work of Jerry Seinfeld was seen as having a distinctly New York Jewish flavor to it, which initially hindered his show Seinfeld (which later became a smash hit) from being picked up as a series.
In short, “dialect comedy” in the context of “You Remember the Real America” appeared to be veiled language lamenting that racial and ethnic jokes had started to fall out of favor as of 1980 (or whenever the missive was written). That offered us a clue that we should dig a little deeper.
‘You Remember the Real America’ in Print (Long Before the Internet)
Then we located a mention of the tract in a 1999 graduate thesis [PDF] titled “‘God, Race And Nation’: The Ideology Of The Modern Ku Klux Klan.”
A section mentioning a related organization (Knights of the White Kamellia, or KWK) spotted “You Remember the Real America” amid white supremacist literature:
The KWK’s fear of government oppression is quite strong in their literature. The KWK maintain that, an America filled with white oppression, is not the “real America”. The real America, according to the KWK, is as follows:
You remember the Real America if you can remember… When riots were unthinkable; When you left your door open; When ghettos were neighborhoods… When you weren’t afraid to go out at night… When a boy was a boy , and dressed like one; When a girl was a girl, and dressed like one… When the clergy actually talked about religion; When clerks and repairmen tried to please you… When songs had a tune, and the words made sense… When our government stood up for Americans anywhere in the world… When America was a land filled with brave, proud, confident, hardworking people. (The KWK- Realm of Michigan, “KKK Realm of Michigan” 1999:1-2).
The above passage continues for quite awhile, but essentially the KWK are expressing a fear of the destruction of a “white way of life”. Further, the KWK equate the white way of life with the often heard phrase,” the good old days”. The KWK stress that the government destroyed the “good old days” by showing favor to minority groups. The KWK express the belief that minorities, have inherent in them, vile and destructive characteristics. Minority groups, then, are argued to have changed the face of America because they contain none of the collective culture of the white race.
Another version was hosted on “Portal to Texas History,” in an archived copy of a newsletter called Hellcat News in July 1982. Most of the text appeared on page 19 of the newsletter, and Portal to Texas History described the periodical as follows:
Newsletter published by the 12th Armored Division Association, discussing news related to the activities of the U.S. Army unit and updates on previous members of the division.
But before the Klan adopted it as their own toxic nostalgia, it was Piggly Wiggly’s. We located an iteration on page two [PDF, archived PDF] of the December 16 1977 edition of Texas newspaper The Petersburg Post, in a section titled “After The Fact,” featuring mixed musings. In August 1975, the text appeared to be used in an advertisement for the supermarket Piggly Wiggly in the Panama City News-Herald from Panama City, Florida:
Earliest Iteration of ‘You Remember the Real America’
Of the few results returned in our search, one was more than a decade prior to the 1980 date on the handbill in the Facebook post.
On July 29 1968, Wyoming politician William Henry Harrison entered the text in the printout into the Congressional Record. On page 22 (digital, or 24083 in print), in “Extensions of Remarks,” the text was prefaced:
HON. WILLIAM HENRY HARRISON OF WYOMING IN THE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES
Monday, July 29, 1968
Mr. HARRISON[:] Mr. Speaker, the Star Valley Independent, one of Wyoming’s leading weekly newspapers, and printed in the magnificent Star Valley country of Wyoming’s Rocky Mountains, carried in its July 18  issue an editorial entitled, “Remember When.”
As Editor Lee Call writes in introducing the editorial:
With Pioneer Day approaching, our thoughts go back to bygone days when the pioneers we now honor with this annual holiday in the West suffered what we often referred to as “hardships.”
Editor Call then proceeded to reprint comments contained in the bulletin of the Conservative Book Club which I think are particularly relevant to the America of the fast buck, the slow conscience, and the long war. I place the Star Valley Independent editorial in the CONGRESSIONAL RECORD at this point …
Harrison proceeded to dictate Call’s July 1968 editorial from Wyoming’s Star Valley Independent, likely the missive’s first appearance. Notably, there were a few deviations from later versions, and the mention of LSD was relevant to events of the time:
“You’re old enough to remember the real America if you can remember when you never dreamed our country could ever lose. When you left the front door open. When you went to church and found spiritual consolation. When people knew what the Fourth of July stood for. When you took it for granted that women and the elderly and the clergy were to be respected. When a girl was considered daring if she smoked in public. When a girl was a girl. When a boy was a boy. When they liked each other. When you didn’t feel embarrassed to say that this is the best damn country in the world. When socialist was a dirty word. When liberal wasn’t. When a nickel was worth five cents and could buy you a magazine, or a good cigar, or a 12-ounce Pepsi, or a big ice cream cone with chocolate sprinkles, or a beer. When two nickels got you into the movies on Saturday afternoon, and you saw three pictures. When taxes were only a nuisance.
“When the poor were too proud to take charity. When you weren’t afraid to go out at night. When Protestants and Catholics thought enough of their beliefs to argue about them. When ghettos were neighborhoods. When you knew that the law meant justice, and you felt a little shiver of awe at the sight of a policeman. When young fellows tried to join the Army and Navy. When songs had a tune. When you wrote love notes. When criminals went to jail. When you could get away from it all for a while. When you bragged about your home state and your home town. When politicians proclaimed their patriotism. When clerks and repairmen tried to please you, or else. When a Sunday drive was an adventure, not an ordeal. When you had to be brave to fly. When you could always find someone willing and able, whenever you wanted something done. When riots were unthinkable. When the clergy talked about religion. When you took it for granted that the law would be enforced, and your safety protected. When Christmas was merry, and Christ was kept in it.
“When the flag was a sacred symbol. When our government stood up for Americans, anywhere in the world. When a man who went wrong was blamed, not his mother’s nursing habits or his father’s income. When everyone knew the difference between right and wrong, even Harvard professors. When things weren’t perfect, but you never expected them to be. When you weren’t made to feel guilty for enjoying dialect comedy. When people still had the capacity for indignation. When you considered yourself lucky to have a good job. When you were proud to have one. When sick meant you weren’t feeling well. When a complaint could accomplish something. When people expected less, and valued what they had more. When everybody was not entitled to a college education. When college kids swallowed goldfish, not acid. When America was the land of the free, the home of the brave.”
Elements were omitted or rearranged slightly over the years, but the outline of the missive remained largely the same.
Of note is the fact that the original title appeared to be “Remember When,” not “You Remember the Real America (if) …” — although it started with “You’re old enough to remember the real America if you can remember when you …”
An April 28 2022 Facebook post by page “Vagina Devil Magic” featured a handbill titled “You Remember the Real America,” and the attached post lamented that in 1980 (the date on the paper), Americans seemed to mourn a romanticized past — including the lost ability to freely laugh at racist jokes, or “dialect comedy.” Our attempts to find its source turned up myriad iterations from the mid-1970s onward, including a Klan group’s usage of the text in or before 1999. The missive made it back to the internet just shy of a month before U.S. President Barack Obama’s election, and the text has popped up on Facebook and message boards several times between then and 2022. Howver, the text originated more than half a century prior to 2022 — on a previous cusp of tremendous cultural change — when a Wyoming politician entered it into the record after reading it in a newspaper in his home state.