The Dashed Identity Syndrome
At the time I attended Phillips Academy (Andover), there were students on
campus from all fifty states and twenty eight foreign countries. At the City
College of New York, I was just as likely to hear Spanish or Mandarin as I
was to hear English on the yard. As a member of the U.S. Army, I engaged
in daily work and play with people of every color, hue, gender, orientation,
and linguistic/cultural background. As I engaged them throughout my
life, I always did so as the African-American, Puerto Rican male from the
South Bronx whose family roots ranged from Native America to France
to Prussia and beyond.
As I continued to learn and grow from such an enriching circle of friends
and family, I noticed that we all identified ourselves based on our roots
beyond America. For instance, everyone would identify themselves as
Italian-American, or African-American or Chinese-American. Given that I
grew up this way, I found this to be quite normal. So much so that I never
really considered what the “American” in all of those dashed identities
However, something really interesting happened to me when I traveled
outside of the United States. While I was in Geneva, if someone asked
me what my nationality was, I would proudly identify myself without
hesitation: “I’m American.” It struck me like lightening the first time I
said it. I felt no need to put a dash in my identity. No pressure. No need
to explain. “American” said it all.
So what is it about being home that makes us all feel such pressure to dash
our identities when we engage with one another? What makes us focus
so much on the “Italian” or the “African” that the “American” loses its
meaning? More importantly, we’ve become so divided in this country that
the “American” has even lost its bonding affect among us.
Today, all it takes is a cursory glance along the racial and class divides of
this nation to conclude that we are as fractured a culture as we’ve been
since the Civil War.
What happened to the Americans that toiled together tirelessly in the
rubble of the World Trade Center and Pentagon in the weeks after 9/11?
From all accounts, none of them cared about the cultural roots or identity
dashes of the people digging in rubble next to them. They were Americans.
And that was all that needed to be said.
Yet today, we find ourselves turning on the news to find one crowd yelling
“We are the 99%!” on one end of the divide, while on the other the crowds
are yelling “We want our country back!” I don’t know about you, but for
me this all begs two questions: Just who are "we?" And how do we give
meaning to the “American” in “ -American?”
What’s your answer?