For my grandfather, a Jewish socialist refugee from Russia/Poland in the early years of the 20th century, embracing bacon was one way to be an American. He cooked it every Sunday for his three sons while my grandmother left the house to avoid the unkosher experiment. When they were done, he hung the pan on a hook outside of the apartment window. He ridiculed his fellow immigrants who sought to bring the old country with them, and told us, his beloved grandchildren, to never look back. To “be an American.”
What does being an American mean to us now, immigrant and native born alike?
Through the long pandemic 2020, the NHS conducted a series of Civic Conversations with a very diverse slice of our audiences. One theme that ran through the conversations was a recognition that for many Americans, the notion of “being American” was formless and ill-defined. As a nation of immigrants – and no matter how some today dislike this definition, history tells us that is what we are – what defines us if not blood and heritage?
Absent an easy answer – an elevator speech – it has become too easy for many to focus on either the most individualistic (and incorrect) sense of identity: American liberty means “I can do what I want,” or on the worse aspects of our history to define us, “We are a country founded on genocide.” In addition, in the absence of a clear sense of what defines us as Americans, we leave the space for our people, all of us holding some tendency to tribalism, to define America as white, as Christian, as anything that limits the broadness of our splendid diversity.
The past 18 months have highlighted these strains in our culture. We have heard plenty from those who believe that their individual desires are absolute rights. And, many Americans have struggled to find a way to resist the sense that those aspects of our history that embody racism, genocidal violence and injustice are all that define us.
I have come to believe (at least) two things as the past 15 years have immersed me in Newport and Rhode Island’s history at the NHS. One is that we do, in fact, need to have a definition of “American.” We need to know the thing that holds us together as a nation; to teach it, talk about it, and understand it as based both in our history and in the values we hold today. And we need to understand that history, in all its complicated detail, in order to hold these understandings together.
The answer to the question of what defines a shared American culture seems to me to be deceptively easy. It is embodied in the Constitution and the laws derived from it. It is what the Founders labored to do – to create a new way to form a nation through a shared devotion to a set of rules that have the potential to unite us. Those rules define how we govern ourselves and, as the body of American law developed, how we behave in ways that allow for a cohesive society when we do not all share genes, or beliefs. I will argue that we desperately need civics education so that all Americans understand those rules, their intellectual underpinnings, and the responsibility of citizens to both maintain them, and to contemplate the weighty responsibility of changing them as our culture evolves.
I will argue further that while no one thing about America may be unique, there is something in aggregate about our history and our founding that does make us special, and this same thing has made us a magnet for immigrants and refugees since before we were a nation. The ideas of equality, self-governance, and tolerance are persistent and continue to inspire today.
None of this is said to ignore the original sin of our nation, which is that we enjoy the benefit of those who came to this continent bearing guns and diseases, and who both took the land we now live on from its original inhabitants and built their prosperity on the backs of enslaved individuals from the Native Nations and from Africa. This too, and the racism that allowed it, is part of our heritage, and it too persists. These two opposites are part of the American story; one does not overtake or remove the importance of the other. If we do not teach this, we cannot also find the ability to heal the rift and do better.
Topics like the have been on our minds at NHS for some time. In particular, now, we are facing the way a more complete historical picture helps to understand ourselves today. This summer, our Buchanan Burnham Fellows are pursuing people of color in the colonial records in our archives. In doing so, they are seeking to counter the suggestion that we cannot always tell the more complete stories because the historical record neglects them. In fact, we are clearly discovering that the issue has been as much a failure to look as anything else.
Even as the project begins, we are reading the records of lives lived in bondage and in freedom, and are assembling the details that will allow us to contribute the stories of Newport’s inhabitants of Native and African descent in its earliest days to the narrative that we tell our kids about America.
Building a better life for himself and his children is why my grandfather came here, and America made that possible. Building a better life for themselves was also the desire of Newport’s early people of color, and America made it almost impossibly hard. Facing those two truths cannot help but create a better understanding about how much the diversity of American individuals contributed to the building of this nation, and how much the marginalizing of some in our national story has cost us.
NHS has been a place for community conversations about all of these issues as well as a source for good historical information. We also salute the recent efforts in Rhode Island towards including a more comprehensive history curriculum in our schools, and to the teaching of civics. If you believe, as we do, that understanding our history is the key to a better future, these efforts are essential.
Banner: Gilmour & Dean, L. (ca. 1862) The American flag, a new national lyric by Revd. J.B. Dickson of Scotland / Gilmour & Dean, litho. United States, ca. 1862. [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/92511103/.