Sunday, July 3, 2011

What Does It Mean To Be An American? And, other essays...

Below you will find several essays that I consider the best when defining these United States of America. Enjoy some excellent Sunday afternoon reading!!!

Essay One
America: The Multinational Society by Ishmael Reed

"At the annual Lower East Side Jewish Festival yesterday, a Chinese woman ate a pizza slice in front of Ty Thuan Duc’s Vietnamese grocery store. Beside her a Spanish-speaking family patronized a cart with two signs: 'Italian Ices' and 'Kosher by Rabbi Alper.' And after the pastrami ran out, every­body ate knishes.—New York Times 23 June 1983
     On the day before Memorial Day, 1983, a poet called me to de­scribe a city he had just visited. He said that one section included mosques, built by the Islamic people who dwelled there. Attending his reading, he said, were large numbers of Hispanic people, forty thousand of whom lived in the same city. He was not talking about a fabled city located in some mysterious region of the world. The city he’d visited was Detroit."

Why it 'sings' America: North America should become a place where the cultures of the world crisscross into a quilt, they do not blend. Each of us should be proud to retain our own unique identities. The United States is unique in the world because the world is here all around us, we should be proud of that fact.

     "I remember to start with that day in Sacramento--a California now nearly thirty years past--when I first entered a classroom, able to understand some fifty stray English words.
    The third of four children, I had been preceded to a neighborhood Roman Catholic school by an older brother and sister. But neither of them had revealed very much about their classroom experiences. Each afternoon they returned, as they left in the morning, always together, speaking in Spanish as they climbed the five steps of the porch. And their mysterious books, wrapped in shopping-bag paper, remained on the table next to the door, closed firmly behind them."

Where you can find it: Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez
Why it 'sings' America: Rodriguez considers Spanish to be a private language and believed, in 1983, that being taught in a Spanish-speaking classroom would have delayed his assimilation into American culture and into his own 'public identity'. All cultures that come to the United States have to grapple with the duality of being part of their culture and still being American. Almost thirty years later, we are still discussing which would be better full immersion into the English language or evading 'public society'. Which is better for the child in the long run, especially if he is going to prosper in the country of his second language?

Essay Three
What is an American? by J. Hector St. Jean de Crevecoeur

     "I WISH I could be acquainted with the feelings and thoughts which must agitate the heart and present themselves to the mind of an enlightened Englishman, when he first lands on this continent. He must greatly rejoice that he lived at a time to see this fair country discovered and settled; he must necessarily feel a share of national pride, when he views the chain of settlements which embellishes these extended shores. When he says to himself, this is the work of my countrymen, who, when convulsed by factions, afflicted by a variety of miseries and wants, restless and impatient, took refuge here. They brought along with them their national genius, to which they principally owe what liberty they enjoy, and what substance they possess."

Where you can find it: Letters from an American Farmer
Why it 'sings' America: In 1781 Hector St. Jean de Crevecoeur asked, for the first time, a  question that we still ponder today. How do we fit into a globalized society and still maintain our identity. Then, the identity of the USA had to be defined as something different than the British aristocrat. Now, we must define ourselves as someone who is part of the world. In some cases, people define the United States citizens as being the world police, the ultimate religious leaders, doormats, altruistic donors, bridges and/or abusive lovers, but we must rise above all the labels to be truly American.

Essay Four
The Plastic Pink Flamingo by Jennifer Price

     "Five years ago, I visited the Union Products factory, the birthplace of the plastic pink flamingo. It nestles among a flock of plastics factories in Leominster, Massachusetts, on Route 117 west of Boston. I have come to believe, and would like to persuade you, that the blow-molding department in the basement, where they still melt polyethylene crystals with pink dye and extrude the hot pink plastic into flamingo-shaped molds, can be just as useful a place to search for the deepest meanings of nature as the most remote wilds of the Rockies, where I have also looked.
     Since then, to plumb my nature-loving instincts and the fierce attachments to nature harbored by many members of my generation, I have been tracing the flamingo's history through the annals of landscape architecture, south Florida, middle-class inventions, Las Vegas, fifties styles, sixties rebellions, organic gardening, John Waters movies, Elvis, wilderness areas, Andy Warhol prints, the Culture Wars, and my fellow baby boomers' thirty-year march to economic dominance. At some point, I began to listen carefully to the stories people told me. My graduate-school adviser heard a National Public Radio report on a kidnapped pair of flamingos that sent back postcards from the Eiffel Tower. Friends had stolen the birds off lawns on drunken latenight outings in college. A New Yorker editor had a famous collection. My roommate's traveling partner had taken a flamingo named Eudora backpacking, mountain-biking, and cross-country skiing through the White Mountains, the Arctic, and the Sierras before forgetting it one summer in a cabin at Donner Pass. And so, by degrees, I became cathected to the plastic bird that the nature writer Terry Tempest Williams has branded "our unnatural link to the natural world."

Where you can find it: Flight Maps: Adventures with Nature in Modern America
Why it 'sings' America: I love 'kitsch' and it seems that most of the USA does too! I'm reminded of a joke one of our London professors said:
          "What's the difference between a petri dish and the United States?"
          "If you put a petri dish in the dark it will eventually develop a culture!"
The thing is this cheesiness, this lack of 'culture', as Price so profoundly writes, is our culture--the pink flamingo (and our need to drive it almost to extinction) is what makes us bright, exotic and hard to come by...add to this that now the company that made the plastic bird is no longer up and running and you have America today. Long life all things kitsch!

Essay Five
The Cult of Ethnicity, Good and Bad by Arthur M. Schlesinger 

     "The history of the world has been in great part the history of the mixing of peoples. Modern communication and transport accelerate mass migrations from one continent to another. Ethnic and racial diversity is more than ever a salient fact of the age.
     But what happens when people of different origins, speaking different languages and professing different religions, inhabit the same locality and live under the same political sovereignty? Ethnic and racial conflict -- far more than ideological conflict -- is the explosive problem of our times."

Where you can find it: The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society
Why it 'sings' America: Melting pot or salad bowl?...Are we losing something when we try to become 'one nation'? Is it important to have a national language? These are the things that I think about when I read this essay, and no matter how many times I read it I can't seem to figure out how we are one nation with diffferent nationalities and races that function separately and together at the same time.

Essay Six
Here is New York by E.B. White

     "There are roughly three New Yorks. There is, first, the New York of the man or woman who was born there, who takes the city for granted and accepts its size, its turbulence as natural and inevitable. Second, there is the New York of the commuter--the city that is devoured by locusts each day and spat out each night. Third, there is New York of the person who was born somewhere else and came to New York in quest of something. Of these trembling cities the greatest is the last--the city of final destination, the city that is a goal. It is this third city that accounts for New York’s high strung disposition, its poetical deportment, its dedication to the arts, and its incomparable achievements. Commuters give the city its tidal restlessness, natives give it solidity and continuity, but the settlers give it passion. And whether it is a farmer arriving from a small town in Mississippi to escape the indignity of being observed by her neighbors, or a boy arriving from the Corn Belt with a manuscript in his suitcase and a pain in his heart, it makes no difference: each embraces New York with the intense excitement of first love, each absorbs New York with the fresh yes of an adventurer, each generates heat and light to dwarf the Consolidated Edison Company. . . ."

Where you can find it: book of the same title
Why it 'sings' America: What I love about this essay is that when I have my students read an excerpt they always think it was written a few years ago, when actually it was written in the 40s. The New York City that White experienced on that hot day when he penned this essay is still here, I also love how this essay can relate to the whole American experience in general, no matter who we are or were we come from, those of us who choose to live in this great nation of ours embrace it with all of our hearts and minds.

Essay Seven
What Does It Mean to Be an American? Patriotism, Nationalism, and American Identity After 9/11 by Qiong Li and Marilynn B. Brewer

     "The meaning and consequences of national identification have long been the subject of debate among philosophers, historians, and social scientists. Of particular concern is the question of whether identification with one's country-in the form of national attachment, pride, and loyalty-is or is not necessarily associated with derogation and contempt of nations and cultures other than one's own. On the positive side, group identification at the national level, like other social identities (Turner, Hogg, Oakes, Reicher, & Wetherell, 1987), creates bonds of solidarity among all members, aligns individual interests with national welfare, and provides the motivation for being a good group member at the individual level-that is, for enacting the voluntary,participatory behaviors that constitute the citizen role (Brewer, in press). On the downside, high levels of national identification ("hyperationalism") have been associated with authoritarianism, intolerance, and warmongering (Van Evera, 1994)."

Where you can find it: Political Psychology, Vol. 25, No. 5, 2004
Why it 'sings' America: While this is a psychological case study (and, has graphs and charts and variables I'd rather just skip over), I think it hits on some very interesting points about how Americans feel after 9/11. I am reminded of a teacher who got reprimanded for playing the Dixie Chicks in her classroom because they were anti-American (for voicing an opinion, might I add) and then was told that we are not here to teach children to 'think'. It is important that we have national pride, but it is also important that we remember the basic tenents on which this country was founded. It was Voltaire that said, "I may not agree with a word you say, but I will fight to the death your right to say it." No matter what, isn't that true patriotism?

4th of July!!!


  1. Wow, this is a great resource. Thanks for putting it together.

    And happy 4th July for tomorrow! :)

  2. What great reading for Independence Day! I linked this post on the main Essay Challenge page.



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