I am writing this on Inauguration Day 2021 from my kitchen table in Mexico.
It is an odd thing to watch the dawn of a new chapter in American history from a distant horizon. Armed anarchists who stormed the U.S. Capitol earlier this month robbed us of the chance to see swelling crowds witness the swearing in of a new Democratic President and the first, female, biracial (Black and Indian) Vice-President.
As spider-monkeys swing on the tree outside my window and iguanas lounge lazily on the stone path, I wonder, “what does it mean to be an American now?”
Americanism Under Trump
Whether you loved or hated him, former President Trump redefined for the world in the past four years what it meant to be an American.
It meant an “America First” doctrine in which the United States rejected generations’ old European alliances and humanitarian responsibilities in developing countries. America’s diplomatic attitude toward the African continent had always been paternalistic at best. But now countries from which my ancestors and those of many Black Americans were extracted during the Transatlantic Slave Trade were described by the President as “shitholes.”
Being an American meant you paid thousands in taxes and followed the law even if the nation’s leader did not. It meant that the love of one’s country hung precariously on whether multimillionaire athletes kneeled or stood during the national anthem.
Americanism meant scuttling scientific theory, with its emphasis on rigor and testing, in favor of a well-crafted YouTube or Tik Tok video. Conspiracy is now fact because the only thing that is true is what you believe.
Facing Who We Are
If you have to declare “we are not this” as often as I get my roots touched, we are, in fact, this.
But as James Baldwin, a Black American writer, novelist, essayist, and activist who also spent years abroad said, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
Racism, for example, is a fact, not a feeling. It cannot be resolved by being friends, reading books, and journaling about the shame and fascination of wanting to touch a Black girl’s hair. Anti-racism work begins with large, swaths of hard, uncomfortable truths followed by even harder more uncomfortable reckonings.
We must address racial justice because racism affects who has access to education, health care, employment, housing, and safety and why. Racism literally determines who lives or dies. The United States cannot be a beacon of freedom if millions of citizens are shackled by fear, violence, and poverty. It is not a personal responsibility of the oppressed to end racism, but a collective commitment to caring for each other because we’re all we have.
We must face the totality of who we are right now if we want a fighting chance of a healthy, prosperous, whole future.
Lighting the American Future
On the eve of inauguration, Biden and Harris led a lighting ceremony at the Reflecting Pool at the Lincoln Memorial, followed by a moment of silence and the tolling of 400 bells at the National Cathedral to honor the 400,000 Americans who died from COVID-19.
A COVID-19 nurse from Michigan sang “Amazing Grace.” Cities across the nation lit public landmarks in a tribute to the dead.
“To heal, we must remember,” Biden said. “It’s hard sometimes to remember, but that’s how we heal. It’s important to do that as a nation.”
We can also remember the wonderful things about being an American – our quintessential cool reflected in our popular culture, hard work, ingenuity, adventurousness, openness, boldness, and determination. We can catalyze these qualities to create spaces where we can speak and be heard, address the urgent issues of our time, and trade tribalism for community.
We are American, not when we judge each other on our worst day, but when the better angels of our nature prevail.