Point Park Globe

What does it really mean to be American?

Written By Dylan Kersten

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I have been told it is something to be proud of. I remember getting emotional as a second-grader in an assembly where “God Bless the U.S.A.” was booming along to a light show in the gymnasium. I used to sport the flag on matching Old Navy shirts with my brothers, and I would even get a new shirt every time I grew out of one.

Then I got to college, where critical thinking about one’s place in the world is encouraged just far enough into life that the threat of discomfort discourages diving deeply into this question. It was here that I asked myself – about 18 years too late – “What does it mean to be an American?”

For a while, I thought that it meant to love and support democracy. Gradually, I have realized how little this system of supposed collective decision-making is actually played out in our government. 

While many of us are consumed with picking the right side of the deeply corrupt two-party system and told that voting third-party is a waste, the voices of the rich and the sound of incoming cash are always drowning out the voices of those who desperately need systematic change. 

Democracy seems like it would encourage diversity and that diversity in government would fight against racism and discrimination, but we saw atrocities such as police brutality and deportation of immigrants only grow even when the president himself was a man of color. 

For a while, I thought it was about pursuing my dreams. But I realized most of my dreams were indoctrinated, leaving me like a toddler running after a ball down an endless hill, not because I wanted it, but because I thought it was the only ball in the world. I started to see that the idealized American dream seems to change with the needs of industry. 

I have realized many American people do not have the privilege of living for their dreams as they can only wish to escape their nightmare of everyday life. I have realized solely focusing on chasing my dreams effectively prevents me from actually caring about those people.  

For a while, I was told America was a Christian nation. This is the one point I have long rejected even before college. Jesus taught his followers to unconditionally care for and feed the poor and needy, not to tell them to “Get a job!” as they die from hunger. 

Jesus taught his followers to love and pray for enemies, not to hate them and celebrate when they are killed. Jesus taught his followers to worship God only, not to worship a flag whose significance is inconsistent from person to person and falls light-years short of the cross. Jesus laid down his life for the restoration of all. America wages war for the security of the few. 

For a while, I was told that to be an American meant to love freedom. Slavery was abolished in 1865, women were given the right to vote in 1920 and in 1964, the Civil Rights Act was passed that finally gave everyone equal freedom (on paper, at least). But I find myself asking, “How did all of the occurrences that necessitated such legislation even happen in a country that has boasted of ‘freedom’ since its inception?”

I have learned that the profit accumulated from African-American slavery was foundational to the economic freedom that many of us enjoy. This foundation was built on the stolen ground of someone else’s home. 

Mass incarceration is the new U.S. slavery. People are denied humane treatment daily based on their race, ethnicity, religion or sexuality. Corporations are thriving off of low-wage/slave labor overseas, and on the other end, we are made slaves to consumerism. 

Much of our taxes fund constant war, putting innocent people into lives of fear or into their graves as our military is sent to fight for corporate interests. I never wish to disrespect the American military lives lost in war, but I cannot understand why we believe these lives must keep ending.

So it feels like freedom for many of us. It feels like we are almost constantly driving down the highway with the windows down and our hair blowing in the wind, but maybe if we turned the music down for a second, we would hear the screams of the people unwillingly giving their lives to keep the engine running and wheels turning. 

I think what it means to be an American is to constantly ask yourself what it means. You ask it enough until you can transcend it and come to asking yourself, “What does it mean to be human?” 

Then it does not matter so much what it means to be an American, and you no longer have to convince yourself that America actually stands for “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” 

To be an American might not mean much of anything once you ask more than one person, but to be human in large part is to worship, to love and to work for something. We can subscribe to what we have been told, and we can worship, love, listen to and work for only things that keep us comfortable (physically and emotionally). 

Or, we can use those human capabilities to live out this American fantasy in our own lives, where we see our neighbor – American or not – and love them. And we hope and fight for their voice to be heard, for their dream to be possible and for their freedom to be true. 

The lost arts of compassion and empathy start to overtake that hatred that has been clinging to our bones. And you realize to be human does not mean to seek convenience and personal prosperity at the cost of inconvenience and struggle of someone else. 

I do not know what it means to be an American. But whatever it means, I know it will always be but a mask of what it means to be human. 

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