“In Europe it(nobility through birth) has indeed its value; but it is a commodity that cannot be carried to a worse market than that of America, where people do not inquire concerning a stranger, what is he? but what can he do?”
-Benjamin Franklin, “To Those Who Would Remove to America”
The idea of identity is a very complex one. We as humans can identify as many things throughout our lives. Sometimes we can shed certain identities and adopt new ones that completely conflict with who we once were. The question also becomes, who chooses what your identity is. Do we get to make that decision, or do others have the right to do it for us? These questions were extremely important as the thirteen colonies prepared themselves for a revolution which had no precedence and they remain equally important today as questions of racism and discrimination beg the question “What does it mean to be American?”
Benjamin Franklin’s idea of what an American is, (see quote above), is one that has a special place in the hearts of many American citizens today. The idea that America is a nation in which hard work is rewarded based on merit is pivotal to the very essence of the structure of America. It is the idea that working hard can bring you from the streets to unimaginable riches that kept immigrants slaving away at factories for insane hours. Millions of disheartened immigrants saw America as their safe haven where their lives can mean something more than just a pawn in the games of nobler and more powerful men.
In the end, America promised life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in a time when the common people had begun to question older and highly restricting structures that regarded their lives as nothing more than free labor. This new nation promised them a life that very few of them could have ever hoped to have. Taking all of this into consideration, then why are hard-working people still suffering in America? Why are innocent children being shot by police that are meant to protect them? Why are there companies and people destroying the planet for the sake of money while others are torturing themselves for the chance to live another day? Why was our nation built upon a history of murder, genocide, and oppression if we believed in equality for all?
Coming from an immigrant family myself, I can honestly say that I believed in every single thing that was told to me about America. I thought this was a nation of immaculate living conditions where even the poorest citizens were living happy lives. I believed that justice was an absolute here and that corruption was only found in other countries, developing countries, countries like mine. I was eight when I moved to America from Albania. I remember being extremely excited because I had lived my entire life around white people (like super pale white people) and suddenly I was going to be in this place where there were all these different kids of colors and faces and body types and I was honestly, whole-heartedly fascinated. It may sound weird, but a part of me hoped that other races had superpowers like maybe they can see in the dark or read minds or something cool. I ended up going to school in America and making friends and realizing that there was literally nothing that separated me from them but what others mistakenly conceived. In that way, I am happy I came to America. I was able to meet so many different kinds of people and learn and experience so much that I would have never been able to otherwise. Not to mention that I could choose to live a life here that I would never have had otherwise. For example, in Albania, if you are gay and display that openly, there are areas where you will literally get killed in public and no one will help you. If you are married to someone that is outside of your race (i.e. not white), you will probably suffer the same thing. For that reason, I do believe that America is revolutionary and amazing in its inclusiveness. But even that has its limits. Every day we read stories on the news of hate crimes and people dying for no reason. One of our presidential candidates has consistently made hateful and ignorant remarks to crowds of cheering fanatics that continue to drive his numbers up in the polls (I’m sorry to anyone that is voting for him, I am not judging you personally in the least bit).
In conclusion, I believe that the “American” identity is an illusion, but nonetheless a necessary illusion. In reality, this nation is not perfect in the least bit. It is not the pinnacle of human goodness that I imagined it to be or that millions upon millions of other immigrants hoped that it would be. But in the end, the ideas that it operates on are nonetheless powerful and important. I could say I am an American and then suddenly one day walk off and move to France and shed that identity. I could suddenly decide I hate being human and run off into the forest and become a unicorn as well (technically I can and nothing you say can ever change that). But in the end, despite the inherently fickle nature of humanity and our unceasing tendency to, excuse my French, fuck up, the idea of freedom and of equality is important. The idea of hard work being paid off and a meritocracy is important. Ideas drive us. We may never become perfect as a people, as a nation, as a species, but our willingness to hold on to the idea of perfection means that we will always be willing to try and that, I believe, is the most we can really do.