By Pamela A. Lewis
The definition of âAmericanâ in the 1950s and 1960s in which I was born and grew up was clear and unambiguous.Â It took root in our colonial beginnings and, as articulated in our two most important documents, became the secular equivalent of holy writ.Â As we pushed our frontier farther westward, we believed that definition to be immutable and eternal.Â âAmericanâ presupposed patriotism, a strong (and largely Puritan) work-ethic, moral superiority, and unflinching courage in the face of any challenge.Â It has guided us in how we vote for our presidents, chosen because we believed that they incarnated âAmericanâ values and upheld them as they lead their citizens.
In our popular culture, the images that filled magazine pages or passed across my black and white TV screen were also those of unassailable paragons of American virtue and defenders of our freedom.Â John Wayne, Gary Cooper, and Katherine Hepburn, embodied the âAmerican Way,â a distinct manner of thinking and moving through the world, and one we all strove to emulate if we wanted to fully enjoy a good American life.Â At the start of every episode of the popular 1970s sitcom âAll In the Family,â Archie and Edith Bunker banged out on their piano the lyrics from âThose Were The Daysâ that summed up Americaâs halcyon days: âAnd you knew who you were then/Girls were girls and men were men/Mister, we could use a man like Herbert Hoover again.â
While the question of what constituted being an American was an easy one for the majority of white Americans, it was a more complicated one for this countryâs racial and ethnic minorities, and particularly for African-Americans, a group of which I am a part.Â We all subscribed to our countryâs claims of equality of all people, yet the painful history of slavery and the reality of our personal lives contradicted those assertions.Â The trip-wire of small and large injustices over which African-Americans often fell attested to their living in a different and confusing moral universe, one where the rights and privileges enjoyed by their white counterparts were either severely limited or completely non-existent.Â Separate and unequal education, denial of the right to vote, and brutally violent acts such as lynchings, stood as intractable obstacles to African-Americansâ ability to feel fully American.Â Rather than sharing in the nostalgia of âThose Were They Days,â many felt that the truth was closer to the passage from the musical âWest Side Story,â where the saucily sparring Puerto Rican girls and boys who dance in the song âAmerica,â sing âLife is all right in America/If youâre all white in America.â
But as I grew into adolescence during the mid- to late 1960s, I became aware of other and more powerful voices, such as those of Martin Luther King and Malcom X, who spoke to the conscience of white and African-Americans alike in saying that a redefinition ofÂ âAmericaâ and âAmericanâ was sorely needed.
For some, such as myself, that meaning emerged through reading the works of authors such as James Baldwin or Nikki Giovanni, whose uncompromising perspectives on American society inspired me to be more outspoken about racial injustice.Â For many others, however, finding that meaning exacted a higher price: being spat upon at a lunch counter, facing down fire hoses and snarling police dogs, or in losing oneâs life.
Our history has shown that unless we are first able to give full expression to our humanity, âAmericanâ has no meaning; but when our humanity is affirmed, âAmericanâ is a word we can feel truly proud to proclaim.
A lifelong resident of Queens, New York, Pamela A. Lewis is devoted to literature and the arts.Â When not writing, she teaches French to eager francophile high school students.
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