FLORIDA, September 13, 2012 — These are very trying times for our nation.
From the anniversary of 9/11 to the murder of Chris Stevens to the increasingly divisive presidential election, there is no shortage of problems confronting the United States. Now more than ever, we ought to ask ourselves what it truly means to be an American.
That question, however, brings about an even deeper one: What is America in the first place?
On its face, this requires almost no thought. Obviously, America is a country. Not just any country, but the world’s most powerful and envied. To each of us it carries a unique connotation.
For immigrants, America serves as the perpetual beacon of opportunities not available in their homelands. For those already here, America is a constant whose very existence is frequently taken for granted. For terrorists from all ends of the earth, it is a hotbed of evil and devoted enemy of whatever their cause stands for. In any case, America is certainly something, for better or for worse.
I say that America is most definitely for the better.
It is a nation unlike any other in human history. An intellectual result of the Enlightenment’s waning years, its politics were based upon the bedrock principle of individual rights. No country established before America can claim such a thing; all came into existence out of particularly destructive ethnic, racial, or religious conflicts.
America’s clarity of purpose and truly noble heritage make it special to me, and never fail to remind me of how fortunate I am to be a citizen by birth.
Most folks trying to find different perspectives on America turn to veterans, historians, or public officeholders. Any of these are fine — though that last one might be sketchy at times — but I often look to poets. Why poets? Because they provide passionate insight to ideas and feelings, crafting them into an art of the printed word.
They put to paper what so many of us wish we could communicate, yet are somehow unable to. Having a distinct vernacular structure perceived by the eye and discerned in the mind, poems are able to resonate with readers in ways unlike any other variant of literature.
One of my favorite poets is Emma Lazarus. She was a nineteenth century pre-feminist who believed very strongly in fostering and preserving personal freedoms. She wrote what is perhaps the United States’ most famous poem: 1883’s The New Colossus. Named for the Colossus of Rhodes, a massive Greek statue that was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, it details the purpose and mission of what became the Statue of Liberty.
Depicting the statue as addressing refugees wanting to become Americans, Lazarus proclaims, “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” With these words, she encapsulates what America meant and still means to countless individuals in impoverished regions hoping for but a single chance to live life in the land of liberty.
Another poet whom I admire is Walt Whitman. Like Lazarus, he was born and worked during the nineteenth century. A renowned journalist and essayist, he paid a great deal of attention to merging the genres of mystical transcendentalism and existential realism. One of his most notable poems is I Hear America Singing.
Published posthumously in 1900, it details the lives of seemingly ordinary Americans: a carpenter, a mason, a boatman, and a mother. The poem illustrates how the fruits of their respective occupations are in fact vital contributions to the national scene. Simply put, they are the people who make the nation.
An important shared aspect central to both Lazarus’ and Whitman’s poetry is the individual. Without the individual and his or her actions, society would be nonexistent. Keeping this in mind, it is no surprise that through times of peace, war, and tribulation, American culture has boiled down to one common denominator: the individual. The United States’ founding fathers understood this very well with their various Enlightenment philosophies and fought a war to create a country which more than 300 million human beings call home today.
Indeed, America is a great experiment. It is up to each of us to see that our ongoing collaboration is an ultimately successful one.
So, to simply and neatly answer the quandary I originally posed, I would say that America is the sum of her citizens and legal residents in all of their respective pinnacles and pitfalls. Honestly, I have no reason to believe that it could ever be anything other. Some might not appreciate this, but I, for one, am very thankful.
Living in a nation that is a reflection of life itself is undeniably an experience to treasure.
Much of this article was first published as America Defined: Politics, Poetry, and Perspectives on Blogcritics.org
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