What Does It Mean To Be An American?

When I was growing up in the suburbs of Charleston, South Carolina, this wasn’t the kind of question that you ever had to ask (unless you were a grade school teacher teeing up a history lesson around the Fourth of July).  Depending on where you came from, your answer might have slight variations in the language and some of the details, but for the most part, it was always the same: a jumbled rant that started with America being “the greatest country in the world,” included something about football or baseball, cheeseburgers, and apple pie, and ended with a grand finale about the importance of freedom and democracy.  As a black kid, I was used to hearing family members complain about the President, Republicans, and politicians in general, but their love for America and our way of life was always apparent.  Back then, patriotism would flare up around the country on certain holidays like a bad case of gout.  Independence Day, Memorial Day, Veterans Day, and the like were all full of familiar stories about the Founding Fathers, backyard barbecues, and endless platitudes about supporting the troops.  The irony was that even though we all thought we knew what it meant to be American, most of us never really thought about it at all because we didn’t have to.  

I’m not quite sure when it started, but long before I was born, the American people decided to outsource our definition of patriotism to politicians and corporate advertisers.  Instead of learning about and teaching the next generation about all of the complications, nuances, and compromises that gave us American democracy, we decided that all of that was too difficult and too time-consuming to worry about.  It was much easier to dumb it down a little, gloss over the details, and bury any questions under a mountain of red, white, and blue glitter.  We raised our children on a steady diet of national myths, empty rhetoric, and American Exceptionalism.  Until eventually, patriotism was reduced to a cartoon—a meaningless caricature of Uncle Sam as the head cheerleader for Team America, completely disconnected from the true struggles of our nation’s founding.  Our complicated history was oversimplified and whitewashed, and as a consequence, entire generations grew up thinking that America is perfect, and therefore questioning its shortcomings or challenging the nation to live up to its founding ideals must somehow be incompatible with patriotism.

A few decades later, my generation is now in our thirties and forties.  We are the NEW politicians, corporate titans, small business owners, doctors, lawyers, teachers, etc.  We are also a major chunk of America’s middle class VOTERS.  In our short lifetimes, my generation has experienced amazing triumphs like technological revolutions in computers and phones, the creation of social media, and the election of our nation’s first African American President.  However, we have also experienced debilitating tragedies like the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the ensuing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, devastating natural disasters, and a massive economic recession.  Our eyes have seen the world grow smaller and more connected in some ways, while growing more divided and hostile in others.  The simple America known for its stability and dependability that we learned about as children is nowhere to be found, and so WE FEEL LIED TO.  Our growing uncertainty has given way to a toxic combination of ANGER and FEAR.  We are angry that the world doesn’t work as we were promised it would.  Working hard, staying in school, and the other advice from after school specials has NOT brought us success.  Too many of us are underemployed, overworked, and drowning in debt.  Finding decent, affordable housing is nearly impossible, and a lot of our parents are broke too so they are are in no position to help us.  So many of us are stuck in jobs we hate, but at the same time we are terrified that someone else will come along and take that job, leaving us with no way to support ourselves or our families.  What happened to the America that we grew up learning about?  Who should we blame for our current struggles?  How do we go back to when things were easier and simpler?  This was the state of mind that far too many of us were in before the 2016 Presidential Election.  

We were willing to heap blame and suspicion on the figure that represented the failings of our past, and give the benefit of the doubt to the other guy.  Too many of us were either unwilling or didn’t care enough to go beyond the sound bytes, dig deeper, and ask the tough questions.  We just wanted someone to pay.  The other guy embodied the success that so many of us felt was unfairly out of our reach, so we decided to sit back and watch him give a verbal beat down to the people and institutions we held responsible.  He probably wouldn’t really get elected President.  And even if he did, how much worse could he be?  

Of course, not all of us subscribed to this line of thinking.  Some of us learned all we needed to know about the other guy during his insufferable Birther campaign against the first African American President, and no reality show reputation or relationships with rappers were going to change our minds.  We felt the same anger and fear as other members of our generation for the same reasons, but we expressed these emotions differently.  On one side of the political spectrum, we saw an alarming level of comfort with bigotry in all of its forms and a lack of basic competency that we had to reject.  But on the other side, we didn’t see the future.  We saw far too much of the same old political bullshit and elitism that said all the right things, but never seemed to produce the promised results.  We didn’t see solutions coming from either side, so a lot of us used our votes to protest the system, and a lot more just stayed home.  You already know what happened next.  Now, my generation’s greatest challenge lies before us.  Amidst the chaos and uncertainty of Donald Trump’s Presidency lies an opportunity—no, an imperative—to finally define for ourselves what it means to be an American.  

The first step is to revisit our history.  Ignore the myths and fairy tales, and focus on the details.  In order to hold the government accountable, you have to understand how it functions and why our Founders designed it the way that they did.  You can’t win a game if you don’t know the rules.  Unfortunately, precious few voters know “the rules” of our government, so our ignorance, along with our anger and fear makes us ripe for exploitation by self-serving politicians.  The only way to change that is to teach “the rules” to as many voters and future generations as possible.  We need to make political education a fundamental subject in school and offer it at every level of public education.  The system that our Founders designed works best when citizens are well-informed.  After all, the power lies with us.  We are the ones who elect government officials.  If we start casting our votes based on factual information about candidates and issues instead of sound bytes, political parties, and empty promises, then our government will change, and eventually our lives will change too (or so we hope).

I am so passionate about this message that I decided to practice what I preach and return to teaching.  I am an American Government and African American Studies professor at the College of Charleston, and I truly believe that it is the most important work that I have ever done.  Helping my students make sense of a world that has fallen into such chaos and disarray is a task that I do not take lightly.  I am there to make sure that the next generation is not lied to like mine was.  I am there to teach my students America’s true history, including all of its shortcomings, complications, and compromises.  These are the lessons we need to learn the most in order to make it through today.  I am there to give my students the tools they will need to make better political decisions for our nation’s future so that we can preserve our democracy.   

What does it mean to be an American?  To me, it means loving this country enough to demand that it live up to its Founding ideals.  It means teaching others that while America has never been a “perfect union,” it is far too important to give up on.  What does it mean to you?

NOTE:  If you would like to see some of what my students are learning, take a look at the videos from their group projects at www.YouTube.com/ProfessorNeka.

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