Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Who Decides "In" or "Of" America?

One of the products of the Bush years is that he has helped reinforce America’s narrow view of itself. He made his rash and ridiculous claim after September 11th, that you are either with us or against us. That has spawned a climate where the Americaness of people is questioned. In a recent article by David Brooks in the New York Times, Brooks stops one step short of asking whether Barack Obama is “of” the United States or just “in” it? The article ends by posing the question of whether “the rest of America” will accept and support this supposedly enigmatic figure who is not recognizable – to Brooks – as an American.

It is the assumption that there is some group of people who can decide whether someone is in or of America that I find repugnant. That assumption is based on the idea that there is some standard set of Americans against which the rest of us can be measured to determine how American we are. Brooks gives examples of the blue-blooded New England Kennedy clan, and the small town value systems of Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter and the backwoods background of Andrew Jackson. Those are all examples of traditional American lineages, true blue American backgrounds of the Norman Rockwell imagination and my eighth grade history books.

Speaking for non-Norman Americans, Langston Hughes wrote that, “I am the darker brother… and I, too, am America.” In claiming to question who is in or of America, Brooks overlooks the fact that one of the products of small town American virtues was lynching on a grand scale and that backwoodsmen brutally took those woods from Native Americans and fashionably absorbed that brutality into their famed rugged persona. He overlooks the fact that the Ku Klux Klan was as much of America as was the Kennedy clan. He does not pause to consider Hispanic Americans who are being criminalized both for being of America and for being in America.

People who were subject to America despite being of it, have the right to determine for themselves how American they want to be. It is a right that they have earned through time and through the contribution of traditions without which America would not be what it now is. Quite apart from the legality of citizenship, nationalism rests in an individual’s heart. The sense of being an American or feeling like one, is just that – a sensation and a feeling.

Brooks and other standard bearing Americans will have to make room for the emergence of other American identities and other American traditions that have been arrogantly cast aside as alternative. The reference points that undergird the American identity are shifting. Norman Rockwell did not capture the image of the true American any more accurately than did Langston Hughes. “The rest of America” will have to make room for the rest of America.


1 comment:

Deona said...

I can't wait until you write a book! =)