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To be an American

~ By Patricia Woehrlen

In the words of Harry Belafonte,

When the founders of our country wrote the Constitution, they began with three revolutionary words: We the People. They began with the extraordinary idea that the future of a country is its people's future—and their fate will be its fate.

This is an idea that invests in citizenship a profound majesty, an individual dignity, and a lifelong responsibility of each man and woman to one another….

This idea—e pluribus unum— out of many, one— insists that through our sacred bond with one another, a people can climb to a height undreamt of by the tyrannical past, and that in that light, all rights, human rights and civil rights, rights of law and rights of conscience, are, at the beginning and the end, what makes us all one, together. Introduction to We Are the Change

So often we do not see the ways in which others are trying to bring justice and peace to this land. And we do not see that we can act to make this country, this world, a better place. We see only our divisions and not that which binds us together. Can we look at what it means to be an American and see that while we live in contradiction, we can hold “both/and” rather than “either/or.”

We can condemn George Washington for being a slave holder and for demanding the return of enslaved persons to the slave holders rather than allowing them to go to England after the revolutionary war; and also honor him for the Newburgh Address and the way he used the force of his personality, not to claim power but to give it up, in order to protect the civil authority from a military coup.

We can recite the Land Acknowledgment even as we acknowledge that we will remain on tribal land.

We can praise the soldiers who fought fascism in WWII and also live in the knowledge that we dropped two atomic bombs on a civilian population.

We can celebrate our “rule of law,” while also seeing the ways that the law is twisted and manipulated to deny rights and recognition to marginalized communities. We can believe we live in a democracy and also see the ways that we sometimes fail to oppose efforts to deny the vote to others.

We can hail the tremendous progress in medicine, in technology, in new homes, while we recognize there are people in our communities, and throughout the world, without access to medical care, decent housing, and adequate food and water.

We can promote efforts to live a minimalist life and accept that there is a kind of double standard in asking developing countries not to exploit their natural resources as we have done.

We can live with fear, sadness, anger, grief and despair at all we have done and all we have failed to do. And, we can laugh, at each other, at ourselves— “'For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbours, and laugh at them in our turn?” What is more, science supports the benefits of laughter not only for our souls, but also our health.

And we can proclaim to the listening world—we can’t stop the oncoming storm of disasters, but we should all try anyway, recognizing that “[s]mall acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world.” (Howard Zinn)

To be an American means we cannot demonize the one with whom we disagree. To be an American means to see that we are all in process. We must not merely call people out, we must call them in, we must welcome them into the circle. Returning to Belafonte’s words:


This is an idea that testifies powerfully to the truth that when we turn our backs on one another, we turn the world against us, and we leave ourselves each to fight alone… but that when every man and woman's plight is our plight, then we find at every hand, brothers and sisters to fight for us, and at our sides. Harry Belafonte

To be an American means to make the choice to “live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us.” (Howard Zinn). Writing for the Washington Post, Nancy Gibbs spoke about Tom Hanks’s speech at the Harvard Commencement, and his description of the daily choice before every American:


The opposite of love is not hate, Elie Wiesel said, but indifference, and Hanks put the challenge before his audience of rising leaders and explorers, artists and environmentalists, teachers and technologists. “Every day, every year, and for every graduating class, there is a choice to be made. It’s the same option for all grown-ups, who have to decide to be one of three types of Americans,” Hanks said. “Those who embrace liberty and freedom for all, those who won’t, or those who are indifferent.”

To be an American means that we cannot live in our fears, we cannot live in our despair. To be an American means to be silent when silence is called for and to make our voices heard when speaking out is necessary. To be an American means to make the choice every day to sit back and watch or to act, to help, to love.


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