My American Identity
Part One: In which I attempt to lay a foundation of my Americanness
My American identity is elusive, abstract. It feels as though it exists in another dimension that I can’t quite grasp. When I was growing up, I did not hear “You’re American”. Instead, what I heard was, “you do that because you’re Polish”. Or “that’s the Irish in you”. Or “that thing you’re doing right there, that comes from your Southern roots”. My dad called me Tarheel because I was born in Durham, North Carolina. We weren’t a family that effusively celebrated the Fourth of July or Memorial Day. When I hear the American characteristics are bravery, a quest to defend and pursue freedom, the belief that every individual has a right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” I think, ok, but what does that actually mean, especially since those ideals are unattainable, due to capitalism, racism, sexism, misogyny, to so many.
I’m sure a large part of this is because I was born into a dominant world power and a dominant culture. I don’t have to think about it because it just was, it just is; I’ve never witnessed America in a conflict that was dangerous to our continuing as a country and, while I’m female and have experienced plenty of harassment and microaggressions, I’m white which means I have access to places and situations that others do not. I’ve never had to tap deep into my Americanness to defend, with my soul and my body, land and country.
The heritage pride my mother instilled in me was rooted in the countries my ancestors came from. It was also regional. I only lived in North Carolina for two years—I grew up in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania—but my mother was southern through and through and she often vocalized her dream of returning “home” to Virginia where she was raised. She craved hot weather and front porches, the smell of pine trees and sand. Picking peanuts instead of apples. The rolling, lilting accent. Southern sayings—so good it’ll make your tongue slap your brains out, two shakes of a lamb’s tail, knee-high to a grasshopper—infused her everyday language.
But Southern is American, right? And so is Midwestern, which is where I live now, have lived for half my life. And of course, so is the Northwest and the Southeast and all the territories that haven’t yet been named as states.
I’ve read and heard dozens of times that this is what makes America, America. It’s a conglomeration of cultures, identities, histories, religions, and that’s part of the joy and part of the problem, why we are so divided in what America’s federal government should look like and how it should act. We all agree that “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” is an essential ideal, but not everyone can agree that that is much more accessible to some (read: already wealthy, most likely white and male) than to others.
Anyway, I’m starting to rant. Apart from ethnic heritage, my core identity development was centered around Evangelicalism but not Christian Nationalism. I was taught that if I was going to give my life up for anything, it would be for Christ and that was definitely going to happen because we were living in the End Times and there was going to be a great battle and I’d be riding right into it next to Jesus Christ. (Yes, I was told this when I was a child. Yes, it’s messed up and yes, I’m still trying to recover from the trauma). I was taught that the majority of Americans were in the dark and were sinful and needed to be Evangelized to. I no longer identify as evangelical, but this rise in the American and Christian identity being intertwined is fascinating. Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation is a must-read for anyone interested in this subject. I had forgotten that there’s a theological ideology that essentially believes the world must be made right and holy before the Lord comes back—I didn’t grow up learning this. Many Evangelicals hold to that theological ideal—they believe we are in that time now; that America is a Chosen Country and that T mp was the great leader (and not the anti-christ) who would bring about this change. He’s a Cyrus not a Herod. The assualt on the Capital was essentially like Jesus clearing out the temple.
For me, and I know for so many others, the American identity is complex, conflicted, contradictory. I was born into a country in which the forefathers and mothers fled oppression but oppressed others to build new lives. They enslaved and they committed genocide all in the name of “freedom and liberty”. America was built on a foundation of bones and blood and terror but also of love and questing and that roiling restlessness for more, for better. Today, Americans want to make having an abortion illegal but won’t support and enact common sense gun laws—shootings are the number one killers of children. And yet. We do have so much more freedom than people in other countries have.
For those that are wealthy in America, freedom is accessible. For those that are not, well, we have to make small and big negotiations and compromises each day.
Is that what it means then, to be American? To be able to exist in the tensions, in the contradictions? To celebrate the gifts but to also, simultaneously, mourn? To acknowledge that we are all cogs in the machine of capitalism, but we are also capable of so much generosity? How do we continue building towards a better and brighter future? Can freedom actually, truly be accessible to all who call America their home? More thoughts on all of this to come.
Last Sunday I went to a small-town parade and fair—such a truly American thing to do on a hot June day. There were rickety old rides clattering, cheers and shouts, live music. Corn queens and princesses on rafts being pulled by monstrous sized trucks. The smell of sunscreen and popcorn and beer and fried food.
But the image that has lingered from the parade: a truck pulling a trailer with its back door down and just off the ground was a miniature tank, a minute model of weaponry.
War and death.
It shot boxes of candy out into the crowd. Children laughed. They ran towards it and not away.