There exists no inherent or tangible entity that we could identify as being “American” since being American varies drastically from person to person and, therefore, is innately multifaceted and defiant of definition. The word “American” suggests a quality of homogeneity that I would argue is deceptive and antithetical to the very qualities of being American because the criteria one must meet to be considered American is obscure at its best. The portrayal of American identity as being a large “melting pot” is – and always has been, in my opinion – insufficient. In my eyes, America is one intricately woven narrative about immigration, labor, individualism, and the never-ending hope for a better quality of life. The image of the melting pot, a large boiling vat where individual identities are liquefied and mixed would not result in a clear “American” identity, but rather an unidentifiable goop of mislabeled people. Uniformity amongst Americans has probably always been a desire, but I don’t believe it has ever been a reality. Being American is intrinsically about balancing individuality and differences with a common feeling of belonging to the United States of America.
In his essay “What Is an America”, J. Hector St. John De Crèvecoeur states, “Ubi panis ibi patria is the motto of all emigrants.” The Latin portion of the sentence translates to “Where there is bread, there is one’s fatherland.” This is a very simplistic and straightforward view on identity – one belongs to the country where he makes a living – and is especially useful in its broad application. Because Crèvecoeur’s statement does not take differences – such as ethnicity, class status, and religion – into account, it emphasizes a sense of unity through that which is practically inescapable: labor. The importance of labor is demonstrated in Benjamin Franklin’s writings as well, as he states, “…people do not inquire concerning a stranger, what is he? but, what can he do?”. Although the meritocracy that Crèvecoeur and Franklin write about is highly idealized, the belief that a person can improve the quality of his life through hard work is the foundation of the American Dream – the collective goal of Americans.
The concept of the American Dream is often distorted into an extreme drive for material wealth which cannot be satiated and, therefore, becomes the source of sorrow rather than happiness (think Jay Gatsby from The Great Gatsby). I believe that Crèvecoeur defines the American Dream in a manner that is much more practical and achievable:
“…by riches I do not mean gold and silver…I mean a better sort of wealth, cleared lands, cattle, good houses, good clothes, and an increase of people to enjoy them.”
According to this view, the dream is not to become indecently wealthy and continuously chase after money but, rather, to work hard to gain what is needed to live comfortably (“good houses, good clothes”, not “the best houses, the best clothes”). This interpretation, once again, places labor in the center of the American identity and treats it as something which should be respected, not looked down upon.
Walt Whitman expresses a similar opinion in his poem “I Hear America Singing” by celebrating the individual “songs” of various types of laborers. Rather than writing about material wealth and social status, Whitman focuses on the integral role each individual plays in creating a harmonious society by completing the job which he specializes in, such as that of the carpenter, the mason, the boatman, the shoemaker, and even the mother and wife. What is beautiful about this poem is that Whitman recognizes and respects individuality of each cog within the machinery of the nation.
“I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear…Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else” –Walt Whitman
As the child of immigrants, I am inclined to view America as the land of immigration. In my view, being American means viewing America as your motherland, the land which feeds and shelters you. This aligns well with the old Indian concept of “namak halal”, which roughly translates to “salt-loyalty”. It is an idea that is woven into hospitality practices, requiring an individual to be loyal to his host if he has eaten the “salt” of his host’s household – most similar to the idiom “don’t bite the hand that feeds you.” Although it is a rather simple approach and does not encompass the multitude of issues surrounding hyphenated identities, such as my own, I support this view as groundwork for American identity. I often find that the problem is not in declaring oneself as American or not, but rather being viewed as being more or less American in the eyes of others. But since what constitutes as being “American” varies greatly from person to person, the definition of the word “American” is greatly muddled, and rightfully so. Would a clear-cut definition and set of criteria really be better than the colorfully hazy concept of being American we currently have? Would it not create more opposition rather than unify people? Is the vast and versatile American identity not already the most faithful definition of American values?