What Does It Mean to Be American?

Kristy Martino
Apr 24, 2017 · 6 min read

September 26, 2016

The process of immigration bears a burden of expectations on both sides; for the immigrant and for the host country, ideals and promises abound. The allure of America has been the promise of a better life, a chance to pursue and attain the “American Dream,” a grasp for freedom, liberty, and happiness. With that promise comes a set of expectations, namely that upon entry into the United States, foreigners should assimilate into the fabric of America. The process to become a “Naturalized Citizen,” has a very specific list of expectations such as submitting to a background check, fingerprinting, FBI name checks, in-person interviews with oral and written testimony, testing for English language and history and government knowledge. (Department of Homeland Security, n.d.). Outside of the listed expectations, what does it really mean to be American? How does one feel American? Is it hard work and ingenuity? Is it our love of baseball and fast food? Is it choosing to play the banjo as Marc Turetzky’s father had? “Thomas Jefferson had even named it the banjo, so it had to be an American instrument, thought Isador.”

All Men Are Created Equal

The issue of immigration has long been a dividing line throughout our history, but recently, this divide seems to have become a gash visible from space. Expectations for assimilation are not so easily agreed upon or clear. It is a malleable list depending on where immigrants are coming from and where they are going to, the assumptions many of us assign to great swaths of people at once, the impact on native economies and perceived safety. Even more difficult is the degree to which we believe the “American Dream” is an attainable reality. This narrative has sprung out of the very foundation of our country, through the pursuit of opportunity and liberty for all, seemingly written right into the Declaration of Independence, but as Michael Lind points out:

The claim that the Founders sought to create a multiracial democracy that welcomed immigrants from all over the world might make inspiring Fourth of July oratory, but it isn’t true. The first U.S. naturalization act of 1790 limited citizenship to immigrants who were “free white persons,” excluding Africans, Asians and others. America’s white only-naturalization policy lasted until after World War II.

From the very beginning, the phrases “all men are created equal,” and the “American dream,” had large asterisks next to the words “men” and “dream” signifying that such lofty ideals are only available to a select few, and that selection being quite purposefully exclusionary. Currently providing a very loud wakeup call is the fact that one and a half million American households are living in extreme poverty, on less than two dollars a day as explored in Edin and Shaefer’s $2 Dollars a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America. Are we more American if we take the view of selective liberty as the founders did, or are we more American if we recognize and reckon with the dark truths of our nation?

When determining levels of assimilation, there are a few key markers that have stood out over centuries; language, religion, politics, and even food. These signifiers can put you closer to or drive you further away from the “Americanized” line. Language is certainly critical to prosperity. Communication may be paramount in providing basic needs for or protecting a family. However, many immigrants continue to speak their native language within their homes or ethnic communities. To many native-born Americans, this is perceived as a lack of desire to assimilate and is, in the extreme, seen as a threat to the unification of the country and calls for a declaration of English as the only national language have cropped up time and again. Americans are often uncomfortable with religions outside the realm of Christianity as we’ve seen in recent years with a growing Islamophobia. This is repetitious history with a new target, of course, and the irony is always lost on those who would seek to persecute others with a different religion in a country that was founded on the ideal of the freedom of religious practice, specifically. Even a universal element such as food can be polarizing, pointed out as “other,” or wholly un-American. In our modern culture, in cities large and small, you can find a number of ethnic restaurants available, cuisines originating from Thailand, Ethiopia, Italy, Morocco, Portugal, and more. Yet, imagine you are looking through the window of someone’s home and they are serving a plate of Doro Wat (Ethiopian chicken dish) and the family inside is gathering the meat and vegetables up into the flat, sticky Injera bread with their fingers. Is that family less American than a white couple dining out at an Ethiopian restaurant? Many would conclude yes.

Perhaps more cultural markers like food make delineating American-ness more complicated. As noted by Tom Gjelten in his Atlantic piece, referencing the U.S. Government’s Task Force on New Americans:

Government policies, it said, should concern “not cultural but political assimilation,” which the group defined as “embracing the principles of American democracy, identifying with U.S. history, and communicating in English.”

Freedom for Some

Adherers to American democracy may be better examples of the American identity in action. Taking the principle of the respect for and protection of individual rights, can we determine that this is an unalterable measurement? That we, as Americans, can agree upon this as fundamental to the identity and beliefs of our nation? We may readily answer yes, but should review current events to test for validity.

Upon naturalization, newly minted citizens of the United States recite the pledge of allegiance to the American flag, and hear a song called, “God Bless the U.S.A.,” written by an American named Lee Greenwood, who has an interesting perspective on the issue of immigration and assimilation, as stated by Gjelten:

The country hit, played incessantly on radio stations after the 9/11 attacks and again after Osama bin Laden was killed, would have struck some of the immigrant Americans as inappropriate if they knew what the songwriter actually thought about foreigners. “If America changes to the point that it is no longer a Christian nation and no longer protects itself from aliens who come and go,” Greenwood said in 2010, “then it won’t be America anymore.”

As new citizens reflect on their journey, I imagine they may not want to be a part of Greenwood’s America, but the right for both parties to express such opinions, to challenge, and pose dissent, this is also a sacred principle we declare. The debate over protesters in the streets amplifying and exposing the unjust deaths of hundreds of Black men at the hands of police, athletes in their prime with millions of dollars at stake taking a knee to make a compelling statement about the history and the message of an anthem that speaks to exclusion and hatred, the power of so many Confederate flags flying high over the capitol buildings of Southern states, all this animosity and unrest over the symbology and mythology of America, the land of the free, is, in my opinion, what feels most American to me.

The New American Mirror

On September 24, 2016, the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture opened its doors to the public. Bringing forth a potent mixture of admiration, pain, sadness, fear, and hope, the museum tells the story of a nation, her people, and most importantly, her truth. African Americans were enslaved in this country for longer than they have been free. This is a description of American-ness that the majority of us can not face, but it is a heavy outline around our shape.

Our schools, our institutions, our elected officials, our collective representation can provide us with numerous opportunities to ask important questions, look at ourselves, and look back at our newest citizens; opportunities to create a country that is much more closely aligned with the words our founders chose, move us towards a society that strives to make the dream of freedom, liberty, and prosperity a reality for all, without asterisks. The question should not be what does it mean to be American, it should be, what does it take to become “we.”

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