On the morning of Sunday, June 12th, 2016, I did not get to make sense of headlines on my own terms. In the middle of a sheets-bound, half-baked Sunday morning blur, I rolled over to Kate’s voice: “Something happened in Orlando. An act of terror or something at a gay club. There are 20 people dead.”
I was 9 years old on the morning of September 11th.
I was a sophomore in college when Newtown happened.
The Boston bombings and manhunt were my junior year in Massachusetts.
By necessity, my generation has learned the ebb and flow of national tragedy: the death toll is always higher than you think. The news knows less than social media does. People can check in as “Safe.” You place your thumb on the top of the glass display of your phone. Slide to bottom. Refresh. Wait as a sharper picture of the world–your world–comes into focus. Wait some more.
I can’t say with confidence that I have ever truly–in a real, personal sense–taken the time to examine what it means to be an American in the present day and age. This said, coming of age during this century has required a gesture of participation in national conversation. The payment for my existence as a “millennial” is an understanding and communication of my race, gender, class, (dis)ability status, sexuality, and religious affiliation. It is also an understanding and communication of how these factors intersect and ultimately contribute to the ways in which I exist in the world.
“American” has never been a facet of my identity that I have taken time to consider. For me, as someone who has the privilege of being white, English-speaking, and from a middle-class background, as well as someone who is college-educated, the “American-ness” in me has always felt more like a de facto association, much like my brown hair and blue eyes, than something that merited analysis. America has simply been the backdrop by which I live my life.
This changed on Sunday. This changed when Donald Trump decided to speak. This changed when the lives of 50 Americans were stolen. This changed when Americans began voicing their varied opinions.
As someone who works as hard as possible to be both politically opinionated and active, the Orlando shooting catalyzed a massive shift in the way that I understand myself and my country. As the world watched, America has grappled to pin down a cohesive identity; cities mourned while presidential hopefuls could not stand in solidarity for a single day. Some pastors buried the murdered while others preached that he wished more of them died.
As an LGBTQ+ citizen of this country, I was forced to abandon political catatonia and confront what it meant for me to be American.
In order to determine what it means for me to be an American, logically, I must first decide what “America” is. What I believe our country to be will directly influence what it means to be a human being in that place.
In the wake of the anger, sadness, solidarity, and hope that have bubbled behind that Sunday’s mass murder, I find myself inexplicably drawn to two men who are convinced of their conception of America: Donald Trump and Langston Hughes.
It is not likely that one associates either Donald Trump with Langston Hughes, or Langston Hughes with Donald Trump. The two men are radically different on nearly every front, but both have unwavering conviction of what “America” means. In my time of ambiguity, I am drawn to conviction in determining for myself what America is, and what America is not.
In 1936, Langston Hughes published a poem in the July issue of Esquire magazine. The poem was titled “Let America Be America Again.”
In 2015, presumptive Republican nominee (at the time, simply Republican candidate) Donald Trump trademarked his campaign slogan. The slogan read, “Make America Great Again.”
Hughes’s writing and Trump’s slogan provide starkly different, but both meaningful, conceptions of the ontology of America. The primary difference between the two is as follows: Hughes contends that “America” is not concrete; it is an idea–rather, a set of ideas–that is not bound to any real-world manifestation. America is something that has yet to be. Trump on the other hand, believes much of the opposite: America is a set of lived conditions that benefit a particular subset of citizens: namely, white, male, cis, straight, English-speaking citizens.
If one is familiar with Plato’s Forms, they may understand Hughes’s conception of our country better. A “form” can be considered the most ideal, perfect version of an attribute, or essence, that all earthly manifestations aim to achieve. For example, all things that are beautiful participate in the form of Beauty. They are an approximation. To Hughes, America is an idea, much like a Form. Various actions (ex: justice for all races, classes, genders, etc.) exhibit “American-ness,” and as a people we must advocate for as many “American” conditions as possible. Hughes’ America is a malleable–if not yet formed–idea of freedom, justice, and opportunity for all.
While Trump purports that some negative turn has befallen the state of our nation, Hughes argue[d] that “America” is more an idea than state, and that idea has yet to be fulfilled by the state of the nation.
“O, let America be America again–
The land that never has been yet–
And yet must be–the land where every man is free.”
To Trump, “America” is much of the opposite; it is a brittle set of conditions that has already been achieved, and must be pieced back together. The semantics of his slogan allow for one to piece together this conclusion:
- “Make” implies that the initiation of something is within human control
- “Great” implies a favorable set of conditions. These conditions can be either existing or past, but they are bound in space and time. For Trump, these conditions must logically be to the exclusion of others, as America has not yet achieved greatness for all.
- “Again” implies that as a country we have deviated from the previously mentioned favorable set of conditions.
In short, Trump is asserting that under his tenure, our country as a concrete set of conditions would return to a previous, theoretically beneficial, state. His focus on the return to something implies that “America” can and should be conceptualized as concrete and static, that at one point in our history, we reached a pinnacle, and future endeavors should aim to return to said state. 60 years ago, African Americans could not vote. 50 years ago, homosexuality was still classified as a mental disorder. 40 years ago, a woman had not yet been on the Supreme Court. One could go on, but it is difficult to imagine which utopia we are being promised.
Both men fervently adhere to their conceptions of America, and subsequently embody two types of patriotism. The two kinds of patriotism evident are:
- The James Baldwin “perpetual criticism” variety
- The chest-thumping Guns and God variety
In his essay “Autobiographical Notes,” Baldwin states, “I love America more than any other country in the world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” This type of patriotism clings to Hughes’s conception of our country as an idea–a set of standards that are subject to criticism and subsequent improvement of their concrete manifestations.
The latter type of patriotism is relatively self-explanatory; it clings to the concrete things–like guns and military power–that it is convinced are representative of “America.”
Hughes warned against something he termed the “false patriotic wreath.” This phrase is fair warning against inauthentically embellishing and subsequently celebrating the country as something it has not yet achieved. Guns and God patriotism falls under the false patriotic wreath; it is an incomplete patriotism.
Hughes ends his poem with a line that is only one word off, but a world away from Donald Trump’s slogan. The line reads, “Make America again.”
There is an America, somewhere, that exists beyond the grasp of bigotry. There is an America where lines of blood donors are longer than hateful Twitter threads. There is an America that has been, and and America that has yet to be.
Our duty is to make America what we believe it can be. Again. And again.
Photo courtesy of DonkeyHotey, Flickr Creative Commons.