You Ain’t Nothing But An American Citizen (Australian-American, James Tuck-Lee)
acrylic on canvas
39 x 29 inches
I did a Google search after I was asked to write this statement, to help me in framing the question of “what it means to be an American.” This question seems to take on special meaning during an election year. In some sense, elections of government officials bring to the forefront the age-old argument of exactly what we believe that being an American should entail, as individuals, communities, states, and as a nation. This year it seems to be a much larger debate, as immigration policy is suddenly a hot political issue. In my search, I found opinion pieces that covered a wide range of ideas of what it means to be American, from qualities of freedom, duty, patriotism, and hope. I found articles damning multiculturalism as being somehow un-American, but also articles on our history as a nation of immigrants, as a melting pot of cultures. And certainly there are a lot of these particular dualisms in the American character. Politics seems to draw these out to the forefront, pitting freedom against security, or fairness, compassion, and equality against a merit-based society and the demands of the capitalist market.
But none of these articles that I found really summed up my opinion of what it means to be an American. Instead, I found myself rewatching the speech Senator Obama gave at the 2004 Democratic Convention on YouTube. The ideas he presented I think better summarize what it means to be American, as one of the people of the United States of America, than anything I could write on my own. He avoids the conflict of deciding “who is an American,” while speaking to the qualities that define us. He spoke of the rugged individualism that has defined much of the American character, but also of the community, the sense of both shared purpose and shared hardships, that binds us together as a nation. He spoke of the audacity of hope as being the defining quality of being an American. Hope in a better tomorrow, of being able to lift ourselves up and better our lives. A belief that we can agree to disagree on a great many things, and yet still work together for a better world in which to live. And that, I think, is what defines us as a people, as Americans. The pursuit of happiness, together, with liberty and justice for all.