monthly conversation experiment

We asked our readers, ‘What does it mean to be an American?’

Posted 7/1/20

Noah Kaminsky, Lake Huntington, NY:

The collective American spirit is manifestly destined to escape its Manifest Destiny, which has wildly overgrown our sea-washed, sunset gates and now consigned …

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monthly conversation experiment

We asked our readers, ‘What does it mean to be an American?’


Noah Kaminsky, Lake Huntington, NY:

The collective American spirit is manifestly destined to escape its Manifest Destiny, which has wildly overgrown our sea-washed, sunset gates and now consigned itself to the material homestead. It was upon this shore, and many others, that we ended our mutually cooperative and voluntary venture into pastures of plenty. We were never meant to expand anything more than our hearts.

I learned to be an American from the stories and folksongs which bind our history—the tales that teach us citizenship, brotherhood and empathy. I have always held those beliefs to be self-evident, but in my education, and in our most recent fractures of morality, I cannot acknowledge that all Americans share those same beliefs.

I still sing those songs because they keep alive the distant voices of the past, who strived, who broke, who feasted, who starved and who burned bright a common identity of hope, reminding us all that no serpentine tongue will ever hellbend this long, American arc away from imminent justice. And so I sing with the hope that other Americans will sing too.

Tom Kappner, Kenoza Lake, NY: 

As an immigrant who grew up in Latin America with German parents and was proud to become an American citizen, I have strong feelings about what it means to be an American.

As a child in the immediate post-World-War-II era, I admired the United States as the beacon for democracy and freedom in the world. The Declaration of Independence proclaims equality as a guiding principle and the Constitution codifies democratic rights as the foundation of our political system. I am proud to be a citizen of a country dedicated, in Lincoln’s words, to “rule of, by and for the people.”

I also very proud of the fundamental American tradition of protest, dissent and rebellion that has characterized our history from the beginning and that makes our country a unique and great nation: from Tom Paine to John Brown, to Frederick Douglas and Harriet Tubman, to Henry David Thoreau, to Susan B. Anthony, to Emma Goldman, to Martin Luther King among countless others who dedicated their lives to the struggle for equality and democratic rights. They all have their own histories but they share in common the commitment to our common humanity.

But we all know that America also has a dark side. It is in following the tradition that makes us a great nation that we counter that dark side. That is what it means to me to be an American.

Oliver King, Kauneonga Lake, NY:

In my lifetime, being an African American male, now in my sixth decade of life, has given me the opportunity to experience the world from many different perspectives: gender, ethnicity, religious affiliation and education, political view, artistic expression, level of education, foreign travel, large two-parent family, etc. This, in conjunction with having traveled through Europe, Mexico, Africa and 40 American states, has helped me come to my opinion of what it means to be a citizen of a country that the world seems to hold in such high esteem. This conviction, though many variables exist, fills me with a sense of strength and pride. In writing this today, I will (well, let’s just say) set aside any reference or feeling regarding immigration, genocide, racism, or the concurrent worldwide BLM Movement.

America is a country that was (supposedly) founded with the lofty ideal of people from ALL NATIONS coming together to live safely in a free, harmonious society, while, at the same time, being able to maintain their cultural heritage and ethnic diversity. Yes, I know the vision of assimilating into an “American Society” lingers. Yet are we a “melting pot” or a “salad bowl”?

All Americans are predestined to exercise the tenet that all men are created equal. Either way, we have evolved to where we, as a unified society, are constantly faced with the opportunity and the responsibility to set an example for the world at all times, ESPECIALLY in a time of crisis(?). In order to do this (since we are more than likely the only country which houses people from every nation on earth), those who we elect as OUR leaders should have the ability and determination to assume the OBLIGATION of working humbly in concert on a global platform to be the best informed and to gather and disseminate preeminent information to not only our own citizens but also to the leaders of every nation on earth. Over the past couple of years, America has been disproportionately affected by the chaos unduly plaguing the present administration. With efforts rooted in FAITH, we have persevered in our unity and with steadfast resolve, and I believe we will continue to do so: “The greatest way to live with honor in this world is to actually be what we pretend to be.”

John Pace, Honesdale, PA:

The unending transformation of what “Americans” will become is a subtle dynamic. The heritage of an amalgam of our country as a historical underdog, and for the last 80 years, as a modern “big dog,” seriously challenges how we view the world and how it views us.

Our best tendencies promote “freedom and justice for all.” Our worst structurally marginalize and discriminate against far too many; especially as it relates to our original sins of slavery of Africans and the genocide of native peoples, as well as the bailiwick of associated issues.

But on a personal level, I have come to believe that the American people are reservedly kind, generous and caring. They will quietly help you in a time of need. Notwithstanding common beliefs, from fast-paced big city folks to the most remotely rural farmers, you will find much decency and concern for strangers in distress.

All of this gives me a powerful optimism that we Americans can continue to re-invent our country and ourselves in a more equitable manner. Inclusion is a key. If everyone has and feels a stake in society then Americans will exhibit a genuine concern for each other and clean up our mountainous historical issues. We must move that mountain, even one spoonful at a time. In that process, we will consciously remake what “American” comes to mean. Much of the world is rooting for us.

Charles A. Rubin, Lake Huntington, New York:

To be an American, you need to believe in change. To be a successful American, you must believe that you can be part of that change. America is about debate and differences. It’s new ideas and retaining old traditions. America is the story of immigrant success and hard work. It is sacrifice and building on dreams. America is an experiment still in its early stages that people all over the world are eager to participate in. To me, the appreciation of being an American can only be fully realized by living somewhere else first.

I had the privilege to live for four years in Israel as a new immigrant emigrating from New Jersey with my wife, four-year-old and 18-month-old daughters. The country was generous with its basket of services for new citizens providing healthcare, housing assistance, child care, language instruction and counseling—all for free. We returned to the U.S. to tend our aged parents.

Living in Isreal for four years gave us a taste of a different worldview, but it also gave us the unique perspective of reentering American society. I think we were as excited for the possibilities that awaited us as we re-embarked on our American adventure as the newest arrival from the furthest corner of the globe.

There are many differences between the two countries, but they share the peculiarity that most everyone you meet, was a newcomer, either in this, their parents or grandparents generations. There are other languages and traditions embedded in their psyche and demonstrated proudly. This is the essence of being American: embracing our traditions, recognizing the uniqueness of others, discovering the mosaic around us and creating an America that aspires to be a light unto the world.

Patricia Smith, Narrowsburg, NY:

For me, right now, being an American means being nervous. Americans have plenty of things to be nervous about and these issues span all ideological divides.

I am nervous about the pandemic, which we don’t fully understand and don’t seem to have under control across the country. I am nervous about the economy. I know so many people on unemployment and am particularly nervous about the future economic prospects of young people, those just graduating from high school and college and those with not that many years in the labor market. I am nervous about our political polarization and how it might adversely affect our ability to deal with all the things I am nervous about.

And yet, I am optimistic. We seemed to have contained the virus in New York, at least for now, and doctors are learning more about it every day. Americans who downplayed it as a coastal problem are taking it much more seriously. There are reports of many large employers, like Target and Walmart, raising their wages, in particular their entry-level wages. I am hopeful these corporations are recognizing the importance of their workers to their bottom line and that others will follow by raising wages. People, especially young people, seem more interested in voting. I saw the lines of people waiting to vote in places like Michigan and Georgia and know more than a few people who recently voted for the first time ever, usually by absentee ballot. There are conversations about racial inequality occurring that I could not imagine happening a few years ago. Americans have faced many challenges during our history and, while I am nervous, I am also hopeful that, despite our differences, we can and will face them together.


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