What does being “American” mean?

I am a 36 year old disabled woman who has been variously labeled “fat”, “crazy”, and “a hippie weirdo.” I now try to embrace labels that others use in an attempt to “shame” me into being someone more “acceptable”. I am passionate about issues of race/racism, criminal (in)justice, fat acceptance, and mental health advocacy. I blog at My Name Is JuJuBe and I am on the team at The Intersection of Madness and Reality
                                                           “I’m proud to be an American,

                                                            where at least I know I’m free.

                                                            And I wont forget the men who died,

                                                            who gave that right to me”

I HATE those lyrics. I am proud to be Un-American. To me, being American is accepting the status quo. It means supporting a system of white supremacy. It means denying the contributions of millions of non white people. It means denying rights to people based on sexuality or gender. It means looking with pride on a flag that stands for oppression. It means doing nothing to affect change.

Yes, I live in America. But I have not “swallowed the Koolaid” when it comes to the greatness of this country. I do not believe we are the most important country on earth. I do not believe that in the history of the world, only the contributions of white men count. I do not believe that people in the US hold the higher ground when it comes to morality, civil rights, foreign policy, education, health and welfare. Until being American means more than being a foreign policy bully, means more than accepting a “might is right” attitude, and means more than honoring only the ruling class, I will be happy to be called “Un-American”

Being “Un-American” is nothing new to me. People believe that if you do not wholeheartedly support American imperialism all over the world you are “un-patriotic” or “un-American” They think that if you are realistic about the fact that this country was BUILT on oppression, and still THRIVES on racism and ethnocentrism that you are a traitor. If recognizing the acts of horror this country perpetrates on the rest of the world is “Un-American”, I will be that. 

What follows is an essay I wrote in 2002, about what being “American” means to me. Most of what I said 9 years ago still holds true today, except I am now committed to bringing radical change about in this country instead of moving away:

I think it is time for me to seriously consider moving out of this country. I am ashamed to call myself an American, because to accept the label of American is to accept myself as part of the system of oppression and racism which this country is based on. I have NEVER been able to call myself an American. Although I was born and raised in the US, I have never felt a strong affinity with this nation.

The men who are immortalized in marble in Washington, DC and Philadelphia are not my heroes. I cannot look at slavery as a minor flaw in an otherwise great country, because I do not believe that is it the truth. I believe that this country has always been filled with rampant racism and oppression. The white people of this nation have used terror tactics against people of color since the day they landed here and invaded.

The framers of the Declaration of Independence were hypocrites to the utmost degree. How dare they proclaim that all men are created equal and then subjugate people of color!! How dare they equate people of color with livestock rather than with other members of the human race!!

The cycle of slavery was often justified by claiming that African people were savages, and that Westerners brought civilization to them. It is Westerners who are the savages!

The earliest civilizations in this world were in Africa, yet people try to repudiate this fact at every turn. Some even go so far to claim that the remnants of ancient civilization that exist in Africa were put there by Europeans, who then traveled back the Europe. Even more bizarre are the claims that aliens in fact built the pyramids and other remnants of ancient cultures. People do not want to admit that culture existed in Africa long before the white man ever existed!! To admit to that would mean giving up a system of racism and oppression based upon the supposed inferiority of people of African descent. As long as they claim that Africans didn’t have civilization before the white man brought it to them, they can justify the evils perpetrated by slave traders, colonial powers, and the very court system that claims “Justice is Blind”.

I was watching Amistad today, and it made me want to lash out at someone so badly. I don’t want to believe that human beings are capable of such atrocities, yet the evidence is irrefutable! The arrogance of white people amazes and saddens me. I am ashamed of the legacy of oppression and hatred associated with my skin color. I wish I could go back in time and erase the wrongs perpetuated upon other races by white people throughout history and into today. (1) Alas, I cannot, but I must go forward and work as hard as I can to attempt to make a change in the present.

I just don’t know if I can live in this country any more. It is a nation of corruption. It is a nation of thieves, rapists, and murderers. It is a nation whose wealth was illegally and immorally gained, and one which refuses to acknowledge that fact. I stopped saying the Pledge of Allegiance when I was in Junior High. To me, the flag of the United States is a symbol of evil, not of freedom, and to hold it in esteem would be the equivalent of holding the swastika in esteem (2). I simply cannot and will not do it. Until the day the US makes up for the crimes it has committed, I will not consider myself an American, nor will I allow people that I am acquainted with to think that America’s heroes are all white men.

I read on a web site that Thomas Jefferson was a great man, and had slaves and held racist viewpoints because he was a man of his own times. Yet, there were abolitionists at the time (3), and people who were against oppression. So the excuse does not hold water with me. As far as I am concerned, if you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem, and I for one, do not want the legacy of America to be my legacy.

  1. When I wrote this essay, I had never even heard of the concept of “white privilege” and its ongoing impact.
  2. I realize there are cultures that do hold the swastika in esteem and have for hundreds of years, long before Hitler co-opted it and turned it into a symbol of hatred.
  3. Although abolitionist claimed to be against slavery, I realize now that most of them were NOT against racism, they still saw Black people as inferior, but believed that did not justify the cruelties of slavery.
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