O, yes, I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be! —Langston Hughes, Let America Be America Again
If you managed to sit through the Republican National Convention, you probably noticed their dubious mantra of “We Built It.” Of course, given that polls indicate that Obama leads among women, Blacks, Latinos, and people under 35. The slogan begs the obvious question of who exactly this “we” is. Effectively, the Republican Party’s resounding “We Built It,” gets at something that makes me quite excited for the election. It has always been particularly difficult for people of color, especially Black people, to identify with any semblance of an America identity. But this election, seems to be getting at the very core of the values and people that make America, and perhaps, it just might be signaling a shift towards an America that truly lives us to its oft-romaticized ideals.
Growing up as a little Black boy on the West side of Detroit, calling myself an “American” has never been a part of my cultural heritage. If you genuinely know anything about little Black boys in this country, this should come as no surprise. The grand irony of my nationality is that I only get to be an American outside of my country. Whenever I am lucky enough to be abroad, I get to be the poster boy for all things American. Usually, to keep the conversation light, I only tell one side of my American stories. I talk about Thanksgiving with an ahistorical smile; I don’t talk about the violence done against American Indians. I talk about “American” food like hamburgers and hot dogs, but I can’t talk about my food—like grandma’s fried chicken and auntie’s peach cobbler. I talk about “American” colleges, not about those Black and Brown children fighting for their lives in classrooms. Again, I do this to keep the conversation free of implication. To keep the cultural exchange easy and light. It is already a task to debunk myths the rest of the world has about “mainstream” America, so talking about its margins would take years. Outside of America, sure, I am an American, because it’s hard for the rest of the world to understand that America never was America to me.
Musing on this irony, I can’t help but feel that the stakes for this election are hinging on something immeasurably profound. This is an election of a changing America. This is an election taking place before an America that will no longer be majority white, where queerness is starting to be given visibility and where the rich are being castigated for their indifference. This is an election where the Republican Party is starting to be exposed for what it really is—predominately a bunch of old white dudes. It is no mistake that this might be one of the most divisive elections in history, because this election is entrenched within the turbulent values at America’s very core. To the deepest extent, this election will underscore just what type of America “we” live in.
Obama is not perfect, nor will his election act as a panacea to the woes America has done to disenfranchise minorities of all kinds in this country. But what excites me about this election is that the issues being put on the table—women’s reproductive rights, religion, gay marriage, healthcare, race—can literally alter the social fabric of the America we live in.
This election exemplifies the changing face of America. An America that realizes that its periphery is actually the center of its very being.
This is hopeful, of course. But perhaps one day I will actually be able to assert my “American” identity as well.