Friday, November 7, 2008

Feeling Like an American

I have always been jealous of countries that have explosive occasions for nationalism. Feeling a deep sense of belonging and pride in your country seems like the ultimate perk of citizenship. I recall some time ago when the Jamaican soccer team, The Reggae Boys, qualified for the World Cup. The whole country was wrapped up in the moment. People screamed and cried and the Prime Minister declared the next day a national holiday. I remember watching on television when Nelson Mandela walked into the National Stadium after being elected President of South Africa and seeing tens of thousands of people bursting with hope for a new beginning and a new connection to South Africa. I’ve read about Zimbabwe’s independence celebration in 1980 when Robert Mugabe, as Bob Marley sang, was a real revolutionary. Those were galvanizing moments that inspired national pride.

I have never felt a euphoric sense of nationalism or pride in America, my country. Until this week, in my life the closest thing to a galvanizing moment was the attack on September 11th. The national feeling afterwards though, was laced with hatred and revenge and I didn’t feel a part of that. We don’t have a sport that rallies the whole country. Our independence is two centuries old and our super power status makes international milestones difficult to come by.

I have always felt black pride and connected to the accomplishments of black people and events relevant to our community. As much as those have served the important function of nurturing hope and fueling my sense of belonging, they do not constitute national pride. When I have traveled through Ghana, Senegal and South Africa and even Guyana, Barbados and St. Kitts where my relatives are, I am not connected by a nationalist chord. Race pride and connection are important, but they feel weak when the flags go up.

Obama’s victory has helped me feel like an American. I have never ordered my identities starting with American. I’ve never even owned an American flag. Obama’s insistence that we consider ourselves Americans struck me. In his address on election night, he used Martin Luther King’s words, “we as a people will get there.” In this case the people are Americans, not just black people. His campaign’s message emphasizing the unity that is explicit in the name of our country was profound. It wasn’t because it was novel, all campaigns stress unity. It was profound because it was based on a balanced integration of intellect and emotion. For nearly two years, I have been amazed at the variety of American’s supporting not only him, but the idea of being Americans. He forced me to think critically about how my fate is tied to some white man in the middle of America, precisely because we are both Americans. Over the course of the campaign it seemed obvious that several people are yearning for a reason to be proud, to be able to start their identity with their country and have no reservations.

I do not believe at all that we, as a nation, have arrived in a post-race state. What Obama has made me firmly believe is that a shared sense of nationalism is a pre-requisite for a post-race society. When our country can serve as the link that binds us, then our differences will be reduced to being the beauty of the fabric.

My name is Kamau Bobb and I am an American.



luvlife0702 said...

whatever it takes. my daughter always says that she is jamaican, ugandan and american. all three. and she says nothing is ever going to change that because that's who she is. i hope she always feels that way. and she doesn't feel 'strange' when as the only black kid in an almost lilly white class, they read the classic kids book about slavery (with the illustrations by feelings). like she said, it's not about her it's about things that happened in the past.

it's interesting to me how so many african americans never saw themselves as connected to the redneck in mississippi but all you have to do is leave the country and everyone else knows you are American. coming to terms with being Jamaican and British (colonized and colonizer) with a Canadian (usually neutral) passport, i have come to learn that sicne you don't choose where you are born, there is no shame in it since you didn't write the history of the place. I suppose it's like being a German Jew.

Krist said...

I guess I will never comrehend where you have been in your journey but I can really appreciate your thoughts about where you are now and your wisdom about the road ahead.

Hill Rat said...


As the son of a soldier, it never occurred to me that I was anything but an American. I grew up with "Reveille" in the morning and had to head home for dinner when "Retreat" and "To the Color" were played. It's really an awesome spectacle when you see cars pull over, everything on post stops, and everyone pays their respect to the flag. Not to get too corny, but it's a moment that's filled with a unique sense of majesty and gravitas.

My name is Ken and I am an American.