When quizzed on our national identities, most of us are asked “What are you?” Our automatic answer is almost never “American.”
Instead, we’ll list the countries whence our ancestors came, fractioned by the generational distance between us and them. This makes me “half Italian,” a “quarter Polish,” and a “quarter English.” But by the time the next generations arrive, these lists will start reading like a complicated recipe: Add three sixteenths German to one thirty-second French, stir well, and season to taste.
Ultimately, these fractions of nationality add up to something rather simple for many non-international Emerson students: We’re 100 percent American, no halves or quarters. We’re American because we were born in the U.S.A., as rocker Bruce Springsteen so aptly and repeatedly refrained in his 1984 single. But why was Bruce the only one brave enough to sing it loud and proud?
We’re oddly reluctant to identify ourselves as American, and perhaps it’s because we don’t quite know what it means. I know I’m still figuring it out. Last week, privately-owned Space X sent the first unmanned commercial cargo flight into space — embodying the spirit of innovation and entrepreneurship — and I thought, “Wow! That’s so American!” This summer, Burger King developed an ice cream sundae topped with two full slices of bacon — embodying the spirit of innovation and excess — and I thought, “Wow. That’s so American.”
Even the word “American” itself is embedded with this kind of contradiction — given meanings and used to describe people, places, and things as diverse as the country’s population itself. But instead of shying away from its inherent complications, we should embrace the immense breadth of meaning and experience that has been laced into the American identity thus far. More importantly, we should proudly take up that identity as our own — warts, contradictions, and all.
It’s a simple fact that American culture is much younger than those of nations that have existed for thousands of years — the United States is only 236 years old, and our culture is still a work in progress. In its infancy, our national identity seems to have been reduced to a few dull cultural touchstones: What’s more American than baseball, bald eagles, Manifest Destiny, and apple pie?
Well, much more, when you think about it — there’s a whole lot of functioning contradiction going on in these fifty states. In America, burger joints abut vegan food stores and Twilight and Moby Dick inhabit the same library. We cautiously elect our leaders, then laugh at their parodists on Saturday Night Live. We grant celebrity to both revered leaders and embarrassing Hollywood starlets. American culture is an expansive array of styles, arts, traditions, and entertainment — and our identity, which is rooted in that culture, seems also to defy clear-cut characterization.
Consider Mitt Romney and President Obama, two men vying for the exact same job who seem to disagree on the fundamentals of American identity. In his address to the Democratic National Convention last month, President Obama described our national identity by saying, “We insist on personal responsibility, and we celebrate individual initiative.” The week before, Romney offered a different view in his speech to Republican delegates: “The strength and power and goodness of America has always been based on the strength and power and goodness of our communities, our families… That’s the bedrock of what makes America America.”
Neither view is wrong, and both candidates make convincing attempts to capture the essence of American identity. But this opposition is a firm reminder that not even our potential commanders-in-chief, men with substantial knowledge of our country’s history, government, and people, can agree on a definition of what it means to be an American — a definition that should transcend their political differences.
The evasive nature of American identity is part of the reason we hold fast to the nationalities of our forbears — nationalities that have been in place for many centuries. There’s a comforting stability in long-established cultural identities that I haven’t yet found in my 21 years of being American. But this instability need not be frustrating or discouraging. In fact, writer James Baldwin offers a positive take on the mutability of our national identity in his 1959 essay “The Discovery of What It Means to Be an American.”
“American writers do not have a fixed society to describe,” he writes. “The only society they know is one in which nothing is fixed…This is a rich confusion, indeed.”
That’s a confusion I feel fortunate to have. It’s what makes America “rich,” as Baldwin said. It’s an honor to participate in the construction of a culture and a national identity that are still far from completion. It’s an exciting challenge to know that, in a country so young, American identity is still ours for the shaping. As college students preparing to step into adult roles in our society, we must take ownership of what’s brewing inside our melting pot — however undefined it may be — and proudly call it our own.