I Am An American – What Does That Mean?

“I am an American and I speak for Democracy.” July 4, 2015

Our high school English teachers assigned an essay on this topic. We did our “pro forma” groan. The best essays would be entered into a contest, prized including a possible trip to D.C.,  as well as a sure way to make our parents happy.

At the time, I did not know that this was part of the educational grand plan to alert students to the gift and responsibilities of living in a democracy. In the 1950s and 60s, after World War II, the Korean Conflict, and before we had heard about the plans for Vietnam, we concentrated on peace and service. We were never told outright, but the impression was that the victories of war were due to our taking leadership in the global chaos of the preceding decades.  That was a part of the arrogance of “winning a war.” – You can begin to think you are indestructible. You do not think about what your heart and mind can do to peace, if not dealt with carefully.

By some cosmic event, I was born in the U.S.A., to parents of Italian-American ethnicity. All four grandparents came here to stay between 1900 and 1921. They set up their households, sent their children to public school, and attended citizenship classes at night. They came here to stay, and they knew that being part of America meant blending in, while retaining their particular heritage. While we knew folks who refused to learn English, mostly older people, the rest of us wanted to fit in. Our parents needed to fit in so that they could earn a living and join a church and become known in the community.

These days we are aware of stereotypes and the damage they cause; these concepts were not included in our high school classes. Coming to the U.S.A. did not erase what others thought about Italians, Irish, or Slavs in general. Each man had to prove himself, through his honorable behavior at work, through his orderly household, cooperative wife, and obedient children, who would be the leaders of tomorrow.

I am an American, and I do not dare to speak for democracy. I know my rights, and I make use of them. I know, for example, that I may protest – peacefully – when I believe rights are being ignored or trampled on. I was not afraid to speak out, except for a while in the aftermath of 9/11/2001 when it seemed that every action was judged for loyalty.

In this democracy, since January, 2015, we have seen many acts of violence, mass shootings, terrorist murmurings. We cannot deny that racism and classism are visible everywhere, that trust in law-enforcement is down, and that the fourth amendment proponents have become a monstrous monopoly.

A mature person is expected to be a critical thinker. As Americans, we are surely able to reflect on the implications of the changes in our everyday world. People who experience poverty are treated like less than; anyone who thinks differently is “other”; and individual desired, agendas, accumulation of material goods are more important than sharing my bounty with others. “All men are created equal.” I believe this. I believe that this Independence Day, July 4th, 2015, is the day to remember, reflection, and roll up our sleeves and make it so.

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