An old and perhaps unanswerable question has troubled me since my childhood. Now it won’t let me rest.
The Revolutionary War had entered its final years, still undecided, when J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur asked, What then is the American, this new man? Most of the soon-to-be former colonists would probably agree with his response, published in 1782 in Letters from an American Farmer: “He is either an European, or the descendant of an European, . . . who leaving behind him all his ancient prejudices and manners, receives new ones from the new mode of life he has embraced, the new government he obeys, and the new rank he holds.” He makes “a new race of men, whose labours and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world.”
So many others were excluded from this definition: women, Indigenous peoples, as well as one-fifth the population of the fledging United States “whose labours” had driven the economies of all 13 colonies. Slavery and its profits—whether from tobacco, whether from cotton, whether from sugar or rice—buttressed the new republic. National prosperity would continue to depend on exploiting cheap labor and exploiting land once dispossessed of its original inhabitants. Part and parcel were society-animating concepts of race, whiteness, and white supremacy. The social and political community imagined as the new nation by the founding property holders had to be carefully guarded.
Although assaults on this country’s civil society since January 2017 might seem unprecedented, de Crèvecoeur’s question has always been contested ground.
Episodes of expanding membership in the imagined community of “we the people” were answered time and again by tightening boundaries. Radical Reconstruction, for instance, defined and broadened the reach of U.S. citizenship with the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and the 14th and 15th constitutional amendments. Those (men) who once were enslaved could now, in principle, enjoy equal protection under the law without regard to race. They could own land. They could run for office. They could vote… until the surge toward justice fell with the compromised presidential election of 1876.
A retrenching racial hierarchy promised white redemption, not only in the South. It would take the 1964 Civil Rights Act to make into law again what had been gutted with the abandonment of Reconstruction. And the era of Jim Crow would also see immigration quotas. In the spring of 1882, Congress passed the first major federal law restricting immigration in the Chinese Exclusion Act. That statute (with its extensions) would stand in force for six decades in the name of racial purity.
I recall wondering as a child if there was an elastic limit to realized citizenship, stumbling over “with liberty and justice for all” as my schoolmates recited the Pledge of Allegiance. These six words seemed at odds with the ceaseless media images. The TV news alone brought into our home each night footage of war, assassinations, and anti-bigotry protests by people who looked like me. Even though I doubted the societal narrative of incremental progress, I came of age still wanting to believe in expanding tolerance if not equality.
But I wasn’t so naïve to believe that the nation had entered a post-racial, post-racist age with Barack Obama’s presidency. Not when white supremacist and hate groups surged in numbers and membership as of 2009. Not when an opportunistic presidential campaign in 2016 could exalt ignorance, suspicion, and fear to feed racism, xenophobia, and misogyny—and win. Not when many white voters, beyond the working class, perceived that campaign’s promise as redemption.
And now, in the age of Trump, the clock turns back yet again on civil rights. The rule of power and profit reigns supreme. White nativists vilify Muslim, Mexican, and other “nonwhite” immigrants as alien nations. A nuclear arms race and other military threats escalate. Environmental regulations and protected lands fall prey to oil and gas plunder. Climate science and language are censored in the face of global changes more rapid than predicted. Perceptions of race cut sharper, more divisive lines.
Taking back the country to “make America great again” can mean many things. One, of course, is the monochromatic need of whiteness to believe this nation is what it never was, except in the minds and rhetoric of those longing for it to be so. Their public memory requires amnesia and selective erasure of the many peoples and cultures long part of the American experience.
It is tempting, here, to exhort. To warn, to urge, to insist: We must… We should… We need to… But changing any condition or situation for the better requires knowing what it really is. And key to this, I believe, is comprehending how many forms of othering have always been central to the democratic project that is the United States.
Other writers have noted this before: The seeming paradox between an American creed of liberty, equality, and justice for all and the realities of an American promise denied to members of othered groups is, instead, a malignant symbiosis.
Transgression in word and deed—the root meaning of outrage—occurs each day in this polarizing age of Trump. One step toward confronting and defying injustice begins with grasping the paradox and contradiction in the heartwood of this society.
Innocence is not an option. Neither is hopelessness.
I don’t know if we the people can acknowledge, with honesty, our intercultural past-to-present and thus admit many responses to “Who is an American?” I had hoped, though, that half a century after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., this nation would see itself more clearly.
Tracing memory threads Lauret Edith Savoy’s life and work: unearthing what is buried, re-membering what is fragmented, shattered, eroded. A woman of African American, Euro-American, and Native American heritage, she weaves together stories we tell of the American land’s origins and the stories we tell of ourselves in this land. Her recent book Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape won the 2016 American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation and the 2017 ASLE Creative Writing Award. Described as a “sui generis creation, wherein John McPhee meets James Baldwin,” Trace was also a finalist for a PEN American and other awards. Lauret is the David B. Truman Professor of Environmental Studies and Geology at Mount Holyoke College. An Andrew Carnegie Fellowship is supporting her new book project.