The Shadow
Published in

The Shadow

My American Ideal

An American expatriate shares his love of his home country in conjunction with the changes he hopes will come with a new president.

Photo by Alejandro Luengo on Unsplash

On a cross-country train in Sweden, heading to Malmö from Stockholm, I watched the inauguration of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris. As I watched the country’s first female vice president get sworn in, enjoyed Lady Gaga’s rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” and listened to Jennifer Lopez sing “This Land Is Your Land” and “America the Beautiful”, I felt something loosen in my chest. Although I’d like to become a resident of Sweden, I am a proud American. Living outside of the United States for over a year, I can stand up straight and say this. Living in another country has made me aware too that Americans are more alike than most realize.

“Optimism continues to course through my veins.”

Existing within the body of a black gay man, my relationship with America is complicated. Not dissimilar to my family of origin, there are unspoken clauses and conditions to abide by. Parts of myself that are ideal only when someone wants me to do something or to sit politely as a sounding board. My union with America feels this way. The marketing of America’s proclamation of equality is not always synonymous with living it.

“Our history has been a constant struggle between the American ideal that we all are created equal and the harsh ugly reality that racism, nativism, fear, demonization have long torn us apart,” President Biden opined on the crisp January day of his inauguration (Hindustan Times, 2021).

I didn’t expect to be moved by Biden’s speech. Optimism continues to course through my veins. But there is a layer of doubt surrounding my hope that most of my country’s citizens will view me as deserving of the riches our homeland offers. Which includes extraordinary events like safely living in any neighborhood I choose. Or mundane happenings like politely being served at my area’s trendy new café.

The ideologies of misogyny, racism, xenophobia, homophobia, et al. are not unique to the United States. Each country I’ve visited has its own colorful bobble of thread used to strengthen and mend the practices supporting these types of violence. Some lands favor brightly-hued threads, to ensure the recipients of these hatreds are clear of its intention being for them. Others opt for more muted tones to remind those they deem undesirable they’re being watched, scrutinized, and villainized.

President Biden also touched on the January 6 takeover of the U.S. Capital building with, “Here we stand just days after a riotous mob thought they could use violence to silence the will of the people…” For me, the insurrection was a reminder to those of us who don’t share the physical characteristics of the men seen on the world’s major news channels that the likelihood of being met with violence by law enforcement officials is reduced if one has the preferred look of citizenship. The sting one feels when presented with footage of individuals met with a minimum of resistance for proclaiming their views is on par with being walloped by a backhanded slap. It is equal parts horror and awe to see the ease with which certain groups can go after what they believe in.

This activism was also a display of the conditional empathy existing in the United States. And an indicator of the value of one’s humanity and culture being a fraction of that granted to those presumed to be born with it. One wonders too if the gurgle of shock would feel the same if the men looked like Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, or Philando Castille. The black trauma porn that often gets more likes on social media than events that are positive and hopeful.

“My American ideal includes being seen as a part of the collective.”

If the United States is committed to discovering why “…the forces that divide us are deep… (White House, 2021),” we will need to look at why reciting another well-written speech is not the solution. Fiery speeches, inspirational quotes, and social media’s hashtags numb the pains of discrimination. They do not cure them. Changing laws and updating legal contracts is a great first step. But it doesn’t get to the core of why generational discrimination continues. Or that racism and discrimination are social constructs learned in families, amongst friends and with colleagues. Additionally, “…we must look back to see how 400 years of compromises with white supremacy brought us to this place. (The New York Times, 2019).” And more importantly, why there are factions that want them to continue.

My American ideal includes being seen as a part of the collective. Not on the outskirts of unity and prosperity, but holding hands with those closest to the center of America’s promise of equal rights for all. However, it may be necessary to first acknowledge that the men who drafted the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution did not have the country’s native citizens or African slaves hauled to this land in mind. So we can discover if our European descendants are on board with dismantling these societal norms.

Another American ideal is to break down the social contracts and media imagery that concurrently reduce black American personas down to caricatures, often mocked and vilified, while limiting the scope of how these citizens see themselves and where they can exist. My roots are anchored in black history, black music, and black culture. But I don’t want to be penalized for my love of 1980s synth-pop, cardigan sweaters, and world travel. Other groups don’t seem to handicap their individuals with a belief they are less authentic within their respective cultures for having interests that don’t start with them.

President Biden’s speech encourages me to believe in some of America’s values like action, equality, and change. But in order for this to be a possibility, we will need to go beyond government and into the homes of families and individuals. So that we can collectively stop wondering why many prejudices still exist. And get to the heart of how they continue. Cures come about through dissecting and magnifying the illness at hand. Not by staying above and probing the surface.

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Erick Taylor Woodby

Erick Taylor Woodby

Writer and host of “Our Black Gay Diaspora Podcast,” for black LGBTQ+ citizens to inspire and educate on who they are in their countries and professions.