A compilation of poetry and prose answering what America/American means now submitted by millennials of color in celebration of the Fourth of July.
(1) By: Soyoon Kim, 21. Seongnamsi, South Korea.
American, America, Americanism are all complicated ideas for me. What American means to me now has changed significantly since the last time I’ve lived in America with my family. I would say that due to the gap in time since I’ve called America my home, I’ve become rather distanced to the continents and to the American experience. I used to be a child who could, upon request, sing the national anthem, pledge my allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, belt out a couple lines from American patriotic jingles, trade out my mother tongue for another. But I did a lot of these things without serious thought. At the time, I didn’t quite fully consider the full complexities of the American identity.
But having gone back to the U.S. for college, I’ve collected and re-evaluated what “American” means to me. This word carries a lot of weight, and for the longest time I’ve assumed that “American” solely carried the weight of North-American-ness, those with identities only aligned with the United States of America.
If I consider what “American” means to me assuming that I espouse the idea that American is equated with only the United States, then I’d say that American is an identity that beholds a host of nuances and paradoxes that hasn’t come to terms with the fact that it needs to accept its idiosyncratic characteristics. American is freedom, American is pain. American is unrecognized histories and woeful memories. American is powerful, violent. American is assumed-whiteness. American is the cultural norm, the default. American is independent, a tour-de-force. American is many masks. American is the aspiration. American is figuring itself out. I need to figure it out, am figuring it out still.
It’s hard for me to square fully with the American identity because even though I’ve called the frigid environments of Rochester, NY and Chicago, IL my homes for eight years of my life these years aren’t fully recognized by my citizenship status. American culture and the English language are both much more comfortable to me when it comes to thinking, conversing, dialoguing, even more comfortable than my mother tongue. I breathe comfortably in English. I can wade in American social codes without so much of a flinch. And all the while these comforts make me internally uncomfortable because I feel that the notion of being American doesn’t let me comfortably love and embrace my roots, my belonging to a peninsula an ocean and couple continents away. For this reason, to attach a hyphenated “-American” is complicated for me to do when asked to identify myself. Soyoon Kim, female, 21, pronouns: she, her, hers, Korean(-American?).
I’m still figuring it out, and I hope that’s ok.
(2) By: Victoria. 20. San Diego, U.S.A.
for my youth:
all they know is taking / bombing your mother’s country until it is no longer a country / polluting rivers until they run black with oil / destroying people until they become mangled bones in stolen soil.
they will try to take from you too / until you’ve lost count of everything you’ve lost / your youth, your health, your safety / they kill you slowly, first with fear, then with exhaustion / sharp hungry mouths snapping at your heels / eyes watching for the moment you fall.
you learn to sleep with your clothes on / in case they come for you at night / and i wish you didn’t have to grow up so fast / i wish i could protect you from them / i wish you could just stop running.
but i want to tell you this: they cannot take away your mothers / because we are the opposite of them / when they take, we give / when they destroy, we create / none of their borders cannot contain / how much love we have for you.
they cannot take away your family / because there are too many of us / the neighbor at the end of the block / the friend who walks you home after school / all of us, we choose you / when one of us falls, another takes their place / together we fight back, electric with rage and love and power / and remember, they cannot take away your power.
they cannot take away the ocean your parents came from / too vast to be claimed even by the greediest nations / they cannot take away the land, not forever / not the rich black earth with tangled roots / they cannot get their hands on every green good thing, still growing.
today, hold on to everything that remains yours / don’t let them take away your faith / don’t forget that we will win.
(3) By: Catherine Park* 22. Lima, Peru.
American is love/hate to me I think. Also, recently I’ve been using it as a shield to remove myself from unpleasant/aggravating situations in motherland/Korean communities.
I guess I consider that a practical use of a useless identity to me.
(4) By: Irena Jung* 21. Philadelphia, U.S.A.
(5) By: Eduardo Escatel, 22. Dixon, U.S.A.
¿Proud? To be an American?
It is difficult to say what being an American means. A safe answer would be “any person that has received residency or nationality status in the United States. However, even within that definition of “American”, there are subcategories: “Mexican-American,” “African-American” etc. It is a form of classifying and dividing people that are supposed to be have at least that one identifier in common. Yet, the term “European-American” is seldom heard. In fact, people that can be described as “European-American” are often the model for what one thinks of when one hears “American” even by members of other “American groups”. Meanwhile the “true Americans” that are called “Native Americans,” that did not have a common identifier until the onslaught of European imperialism washed up on their shores, aren’t given the same autonomy as the descendants of the European settlers. They’re never just “Americans” that is strictly reserved for those that restricted their ideas.
The term “American” is a social construct that is too loosely defined and contradictory to itself. Despite its legal connotations, it’s unofficial uses often prompt the image of a European-descendent living in the United States. However, as the inexorable march of time continues, that prototype of an average “American” will soon change and no longer be restricted to European-Americans but to any American regardless of ethnic origins.
(6) By: Mark, 19. Tokyo, Japan.
I think defining what American is so difficult because there is no one thing that captures the entire “American” identity. If anything, America’s diversity, and how the nation adapts to it, both the good and the bad, forms the unique American experience.
(7) By: Kimberly Chopin, 21. Washington, D.C., U.S.A.
What it means to be American
What it means to be an American is something of a complicated subject that has taken my 20 years on this earth to figure out as my definition does not match the hyper-nationalist ideal we are brainwashed to believe at a young age.
I battle with what I live at home and what I experience on the streets. To be quite frank, I learned the real definition of an “American” while I was in college at the age of 19 when a dear friend of mine explained how the definition actually encompasses all individuals that are from the Americas (including Central and South America) but if I were to state this thought on the street of the US today it is 100% guaranteed that I will be brutally confronted and questioned. This definition completely disregards anything and everything I was taught to believe and it came with great belief. As I always felt that the definition I grew up with disregarded an important part of me which is why I always felt the need to define what type of American I am which if you actually think out is a ridiculous notion.
My definition of what it means to be an American is split between different pieces of me that unfortunately are not all equally accepted.
One piece encompasses my heritage which people automatically associate with my skin color which is an association that reflects more than my ancestors but different points in my life: were I played in the sun, learned lessons through scars and walk new paths with the callouses on my feet. My heritage reflects the food I was raised on, the stories my mother told me as I slept, the lessons learned from elders and my native language. I was pressed with the American “heritage” in my schooling but found that it pales in comparison to that of the one I see in reflection every morning. I see a people that give more than they have, always are willing to help others and even if they have their differences can easily be solved over an amazing plate of food. I rejected the individualist society I was born into and created my own definition of what it means to be an American by making all the different pieces of mine fit.
Another piece encompasses me as a scholar which is usually associated with only formal schooling but to be a scholar does not always mean you are learning from a professor at the top of their field, it can also mean learned from my mom in my daily life or from spiritual leaders in my personal relationship with a higher power. I’ve learned and am still learning to this day different things from different people and I feel this is a very important part of my definition as this is what I consider has made the US what it is, people from all over bringing their knowledge and blessing our country with their creations. This idea is not widely accepted which is sad as we no longer value those that can beautifully perform different crafts as they don’t always fit in our ever changing capitalist world.
What it means to be an American to me is someone that has multiple pieces to themself and find that each piece is embraced by a community that is willing to accept and rejoice in every difference.
It means that even if you down agree with someone else on anything you have the ability to still accept their difference.
It means that others from around the world can also be “American” if they wish without having to revoke their own identity.
My definition of what it means to be an American is not bound to the political definitions set by our system but each individual living [being] within our nation dreaming of true acceptance and success.
(8) By: JXYOOJ* 21. Sacramento, U.S.A.
Hawai’i. A paradise built on colonization.
This photo is relevant today because it is the paradise America built through the colonization of Native Hawaiians. Native Hawaiians have suffered in insurmountable ways that benefit the privileged, especially the United States military. Even though the unrighteous takeover of Hawai‘i happened over a century ago, negative impacts on the community including homelessness due to homelessness, sacred lands that are stolen by the military, and high rates of incarceration have affected their peaceful and sustainable way of life. Hopefully, the lands will once again belong to Native Hawaiians.”
(9) By: Sarah Choung, 21. Fullerton, U.S.A.
America is a place filled with confusion and paradoxes. Founded on the ideas of being a united nation, yet divisiveness is what has propagated much of our history.
(10) By: Casey Yoon. 19. Berkeley, U.S.A.
As cliche as it is, America is my parents’ dream and my opportunity to fulfill their dream. At the same [time], it’s a place where I can learn to make my mark on the world or at the very least a place I call home. Now in a more realistic sense, America is a place with diverse histories that grew both together and apart which creates the highly dichotomized world we have today. Not to to say that there isn’t hope and not to discard the amount of progress that has been made, but it is a reminder of how much more America has to develop.
(11) By: SC Yeowoo. 20. Berlin, Germany.
America. the land floating on top of the dreams of immigrants of color / the swamp of broken bodies and forced borders. America, my home. the land that treats me and my people so wrong yet I cannot leave her.
for she might want me one day. not for my labor but because I’m her child. not the adopted, foreign one but of her own flesh and blood.
one day I might have the face of an American. someday my face might be American. someday I may be American.
Enough. American enough.
Names marked with asterisks* are pseudonyms.
A huge thank you to all our contributors. If you have any thoughts on the question: what does America/American mean now, please feel free to comment below.