- What is an American?
- What did you learn about America from the book you read this summer?
- By your own definition, how American are you?
Write for five minutes without stopping. Be prepared to share!
Honors American Literature, 5 September 2016
Familiar scratch of pen and paper, familiar slant of morning light through familiar second-floor windows. Unfamiliar students, answering an old question at the beginning of a new year. What is an American?
We’ve spent a few days pondering this, reading New Yorker articles written by outsiders looking in and trying, as best as we can, to capture the “essence of America” as we begin our course in American Literature. Last week, my students claimed that institutions like bottomless chips at Chili’s, monolingualism or the game of baseball were emblematic of America, revealing features of nation’s face. Today, we’re discussing the face itself. When we get to the bottom of it, what is an American? And am I one?
It’s not an irrelevant question for us, either in English class or here at Black Forest Academy. In class, we’re beginning a year of exploring the relationship between a culture an its art, so uncovering the culture at its foundation, the basic scaffolding that makes this one nation different from the others, is key. We’ll get to the American Dream later, yes, but for now we’re back at the beginning and even before it. Before there was an America–before declarations and constitutions and wars–who were Americans? And how did they know?
At BFA, the question is more personal, and more interesting. I ask the class how many hold U.S. passports and the majority raise their hands. “How many of you, then, have spent more of your life outside the country than in it?” Again, mostly raised hands.
I tell them about my students back in Seattle, who were always from somewhere, but also American. Somali-American, Mexican-American, Vietnamese-American, African-American. Even the ones born elsewhere were American, having adopted this country as part of their hyphenated identities, calling it home and vowing to stay. And I tell them about themselves, or past versions of them, students born in the United States, with American passports, who feel like strangers in Topeka or Chicago or Portland, and at home in Baku or Nairobi. Identity is more than a passport, I remind them, and they nod knowingly.
Toward the end of the class, they line up as a spectrum from most to least American, by their own definitions. By the window are students whose only exposure to the United States has come from their classmates here, who have no other relationship to America and who doubtless wonder why I’m making such a big deal about this question. By the door stand a few students who’ve just moved here, who are also mystified by the many identities that their classmates hold in tension. In the middle, though, are the tricky stories.
The brief visits to America punctuated by most of their lives elsewhere. The feeling of not fitting in to the culture that issued their passports, but still realizing–often with self-awareness beyond their years–that they’ve been shaped by their starting point, and that American culture will always be their native language, their default mode. Yes, we’re American, my students tell me. We just don’t quite know what that means, all the time.
From Joyce’s Stephen Daedalus to Luke Skywalker, all through literature we learn that a hero’s ambivalence about his place of origin is the beginning of a good story. As I listen to my students, global wanderers still trying to pin down “home,” I realize that a new story has begun, and that I’m thrilled to meet the heroes that will fill this year.