What is an American?

America is 235 years old this week, so it seems like an appropriate time to ask: What does it mean, today, to be American? Some perspectives below:

Pultizer Prize-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas — who wrote an article for the NY Times Magazine outing himself as an undocumented immigrant — has started a website called Define American that really pushes the question hard: As a hard-working, independent, patriotic tax-payer who wants to contribute to society, he argues — compellingly — that he is an American, despite the lack of the right papers. As one of his blog posts suggests, he’s trying to “write himself into America,” deliberately choosing the stories that will define who he is: “We tell stories, after all, to recognize ourselves, our common humanity, in each other. I grew up here. This is the place I call home.” And shouldn’t America — as “a nation of nations” that is “built on an idea and ‘founded on the printed word'” — be more welcoming to those who want to share in that idea, and who want to write their stories into its own?

Meanwhile, British-born reporter and author Simon Winchester has just been sworn in as an American citizen:

[I was] assigned to cover one of the most extraordinary episodes ever to befall the country: the resignation of a president, over Watergate. For 30 months I watched transfixed as the ponderous machinery of America’s democracy cranked itself up to answer, it seemed, the ultimate wish of the public. To get rid of British heads of state had for centuries required execution, the head on the block. Here it seemed, and more properly, it was the people who enjoyed the greater measure of sovereignty. A people I now even more urgently wanted to join.

But there was more. I had come to Washington from Belfast, from reporting on three horror-filled years of hatred and killing. Stripped of its subtleties, the violence there stemmed from a mutual hatred between Ulster Protestants and Irish Catholics — so long as they were confined to Ulster. But then many Belfast friends moved away, to escape. I soon came to reconnect with some who had moved to America — couples who had loathed one another back in the Six Counties, but who now, in Chicago, Seattle, and Dallas, far from hating one another, had married, had produced children, had quite forgotten the need to hate. And still others, people who had arrived here mired in the hostilities of other homelands — immigrants from the Balkans, the Levant, and Indochina were among those I came to know best — soon found their ancient animosities were fading into insignificance, too. Their experience only reinforced my feeling: the argument for my joining this extraordinary experiment in improving the human condition — an imperfect experiment at times, of course — grew steadily more powerful.

Historian Gordon S. Wood reflects on the nature of American identity, and how it plays havoc with traditional notions of “nationhood”:

For us Americans, the words of the Declaration have become central to our sense of nationhood. Because the United States is composed of so many immigrants and so many different races and ethnicities, we can never assume our identity as a matter of course. The nation has had to be invented. At the end of the Declaration, the members of the Continental Congress could only “mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.” There was nothing else but themselves that they could dedicate themselves to — no patria, no fatherland, no nation as yet. In comparison with the 235 year-old United States, many states in the world today are new, some of them created within fairly recent past. Yet many of these states, new as they may be, are under-girded by peoples who had a pre-existing sense of their ethnicity, their nationality. In the case of the United States, the process was reversed: We Americans were a state before we were a nation, and much of our history has been an effort to define that nationality.

In fact, even today America is not a nation in any traditional meaning of the term. We Americans have had to rely on ideas and ideals in order to hold ourselves together and think of ourselves as a single people. And more than any other single document in American history, the Declaration has embodied these ideas and ideals.

Elsewhere, The Takeaway is airing an ongoing series called “My America,” featuring reflections from special guests as well as from staff, contributors, and regular listeners. Of interest:

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, echoing Wood’s theme, connects America to the notion of shared principles, where rights should apply to all: “My America is a place where every day we fight for and we uphold the guiding principles of our nation: equality, fairness, and justice.” On the recent passage of the gay marriage bill in New York, she says: “It’s a basic principle: that every loving committed couple should have the right to celebrate that love and commitment among their family, friends, and in their community. And again, it goes to who we are as Americans. It goes to our core values.”

John Leguizamo emphasizes identity beyond ethnicity: “There’s too many clubs, too many divisions, I feel. I don’t want to be living in a ghetto of all the same people. I want to live with everybody. I love all the diversity that I grew up with; that’s what I want to be around all the time — not just a monolith of Latin people either, you know. I want everybody.”

Ibrahim Abdul-Matin highlights the way America has gradually expanded its circle of moral concern, as well as the need for a sense of community and obligation: “235 years ago, people like me were not considered citizens or human beings. […] This is a very different world. […] I think the experience is really about ‘What are we going to do, what work are you going to do to make sure that your life is good and your neighbor’s life is good?'”

The rest of the series here. Lots of food for thought, as we consider the seemingly infinite number of perspectives on what it means to be part of this country — and indeed as we ask, in this age of global connections transcending cultures and geographies, whether it should mean anything at all. I think it does; but more on that in coming posts, I expect.

Happy Birthday, America.


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