Editor’s note: this article was originally posted on May 3, 2010. It is reposted today in honor of Fourth of July.
So I’ve been TiVo-ing History Channel’s “America: The Story of Us,” because I admit, I am a history nerd. U.S. History was my favorite class in High School and I remember being the only one in my class to read my textbook before class had started in the fall. I had jotted down all the notes that my teacher, Mr. Davis, had asked us to do during our summer break. I loved that class, I remember Mr. Davis surprised us once by loading and firing a Civil War rifle during a class (it wasn’t loaded.) No wonder The History Channel’s special got my pulse running: my love for American history started off with a shot.
Why American History?
Why American history? Well, if you’ve been watching the program you might understand. There is a common thread that runs through all Americans, whether your ancestors came from Europe, Africa, Asia, the Pacific Islands, or Latin America. That common thread is the relentless drive to succeed, to invent, to persevere, to fight for what’s right and just, not just in American terms, but in human terms. There’s that unforgiving spirit of being bold, new, adventurous. The guts, the chutzpah, the ganas, the daring to innovate, to refashion your identity, and to hold dear an incurable, almost insane, sense of optimism.
Whatever you feel about Obama, he is right about one thing. This country didn’t come together easily: the rights, freedoms, and dreams accomplished were not won overnight. There was some serious–and I mean serious–pains that had to be endured in order for us to become the country we are today (“Donner Breakfast Special anyone? Human liver and wood ships!”) History also reminds us that this nation was formed by revolutionaries, by people who rebelled against authority, against an establishment, against a status quo that said: NO, NOT ALL MEN ARE CREATED EQUAL. NOR WILL THEY EVER BE.
These revolutionaries risked their lives for the hopes of establishing a completely free country that many of them never really lived to see, but set in motion. A country that was to be continually improved, to this day. America’s story is the perpetual immigrant story, were newcomers pack their bags with hope and leave their torn past on native lands. They all came here with impossible dreams, some never even realized, some actually achieved, some still in progress, but all relentlessly pursued.
The American Character
That’s it. That’s The American Character that binds us all: relentless optimism. And I am talking relentless optimism. (Grizzly bear attack, anyone?) Yes, our present prospects are dismal. Clouds of despair and negativity give warning of a Flood on a daily basis. But we still manage to say: “It will all get better soon.”
We try, we try, we try and we don’t give up. We push through a wilderness that might kill us and say: “Yeah, I can do this!”
We face oppression, misrepresentation, exploitation, and degradation, but we still manage to say: “Yeah, I have worth. I got pride. I deserve something better and I am willing to fight for it!”
We see a dead-end, or a bottomless pit off a cliff, and still manage to say: “What can I get to break down this dead-end? How can I make something that will let me fly over this bottomless pit, and reach the other side?”
“How can this be perfected? How can I make this easier? How can I make this fairer? How can we become more united? How can we help the poor, stop the rich from getting too powerful, how can we give everyone the same opportunities? And, at the same time, how can we give everyone as much freedom as possible?”
These are the questions that great American leaders have asked, that great American citizens have found answers for, and that all of us today are still trying to work out. What does it mean to be American? I have found that drawing lines based on race, or class, or ancestral country doesn’t help, not even in the beginning of the U.S. The early colonies were an amalgamation of countries, religions, cultures, and languages. The United States has ALWAYS been diverse. No, we can’t pin down the essence of America based on gender or sexual identity either–women and homosexuals have played a crucial role from the beginning in framing this nation as well. The poor as well as the rich have made this nation’s buildings tall and kept its houses warm. You can be cynical and define America by the malpractices of its corporations, or by its perpetuation of an unhealthy, materialistic culture, or by its role as an exploiter of indigenous communities in third-world countries around the world and throughout history. You can, because it is an ugly side that is all too apparent and deplorable. But just as a person is more than the most deplorable thing they have done, so is a country. There are those who will do evil or injustice in the name of America, so I am free to do good and promote justice in the name of American too, while deploring those who do it injustice. They can’t take away what America means to me. I am free to define it as I wish, under my terms.
Others may try to drag the flag down into the mud, but that should not stop the rest of us from pulling that same flag up into the light. What I am trying to say is that the story of America is our story. No cable station, or state, or group, or party can destroy this fact. A government by and for the people only works if we remember that we are the people. And the people are not defined by any line denoting race, gender, religion, culture, sexuality, immigrant status or party. The people are defined by The American Character, a character that says every day is a good day. Every day is another opportunity to fight and move forward. What we don’t have we can create. What isn’t right, we can make right. We set no limit on who we are or what we can become, and no one can tell us to back down unless we let them; and if history teaches us anything–we never do.
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