On Being an American

With many seeing the country’s choice of the new President-Elect as an expression of an impulse to regress to a narrower 1950s frame of consciousness, more than a few of the books in the store’s Political Science and Social Science sections have become prescient again.

In the first essay in James Baldwin’s collection Nobody Knows My Name, “The Discovery of What it Means to be an American,” (1959) he writes,

That the tensions of American life, as well as the possibilities, are tremendous is certainly not even a question. But these are dealt with in contemporary literature mainly compulsively; that is, the book is more likely to be a symptom of our tension than an examination of it. The time has come, God knows, for us to examine ourselves, but we can only do this if we are willing to free ourselves of the myth of America and try to find out what is really happening here.

Our choices for President, and Senate and House representatives, could be seen as the ultimate symptoms of American tension in 2016. Then there are our heavily biased “news” and media outlets, our addictions (to the cloud’s screens, especially), our reliance on pseudo-facts with an unwillingness to dig deeper, and our isolation from each other, which all make it easier to follow rhetoric based on separateness, to follow someone who preys on fear.

One could argue that there are now a dangerous number of conflicting American myths at play in this country. Those who elected Trump to power fell sway to a host of fictional conceptions. The illusion that America was “great” or must return to a different era to become “great” again denies multiple socioeconomic and cultural perspectives/experiences.

What is really happening here, now, in this limbo between progress and regress? It is clearly a good time to begin the (re)examination, on our own and collective levels, if we haven’t already. Four years, the duration of a high school or college term, can be an important building experience in one’s own life. What will this term mean for the life and growth of our country, its place in the world, its effect on the world’s environment?

-Will and Angela

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