To the editor:
In last week’s Lincoln County News, Frank Slason had a letter to the editor supporting President Trump’s plan to “shut down the ports.” Toward the end of the piece, Slason referenced “true Americans.” To me, the question of how we define who is a true American is at the core of so much of the current vitriol, divisive rhetoric, and nationalistic fervor.
We can assume that Mr. Slason was speaking about a United States of America American. Broadly speaking, American can refer to pretty much anyone in the Western Hemisphere, from the northernmost regions of Canada to the southernmost tip of Chile.
One measure might be how long our ancestors have been living in this country. Both sides of my family have been in New England since the early 1700s, and my ninth-great-grandfather on my mother’s side was one of the town fathers of Springfield, Mass. in the 1640s. Does that make me a true American?
Many Africans were brought to this continent as slaves in the 17th and 18th centuries, long before many of the waves of European immigrants. Does that make the descendants of those slaves more American?
Another measure might be service to this country. People from many lands have come to America and then served in the military, often in wartime, to give back to the country they now call home. Does this make them true Americans?
Perhaps commitment to values is an essential measure of a true American. Is a person committed to representative democracy? Are individual rights and the pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness central to being a true American?
The longevity of ancestry does seem to have conceptual weight. Years ago, I was with a group of graduate students talking with a member of the Penobscot tribe on Indian Island. He asked a simple question. How long have your people been here? Several in the group responded to the question. He then answered for himself: over 10,000 years! That statement has stayed with me and tempers my perspective on who should call themselves American.
As with so many aspects of this nation, there are many dimensions to consider in answering any question. As to who is a “true American,” the most suitable answer may be, all of the above.