I’ve been thinking about this prompt for days. And I’m not sure exactly what it’s asking me; it implies, on the surface, that there are days when I don’t feel American. I was born in the United States, although I am first generation Irish-American. How could I ever feel anything but American? It’s like asking about the moment I felt most like a woman. Citizenship, like gender or family, is an intrinsic part of who I am. I assumed that was the case for everyone…
I remember where I was the day Kennedy was shot, when an American astronaut took the first steps on the moon, Woodstock (sadly, I was too young to go), when Nixon resigned, Gerald Ford tripped over his feet. Bobby Kennedy. Martin Luther King. I waited in line for gas. I cheered for the US Olympic basketball team—the dream team. Mark Spitz. Kent State. Mount Saint Helens. Three Mile Island. Valdez. Impeachment proceedings. When the Supreme Court usurped the election process. Vietnam, Kuwait, Bosnia, Iraq—shock and awe—Afghanistan. Katrina. BP.
I voted for a black man for president. Because he was the right man, the best man for the job. I know the stories of Paul Revere, and the Founding Fathers. I know the historical reasons behind the Civil War. I have been both proud and ashamed of my Americanism.
I boycotted grapes. Protested wars – supported troops. Helped form a human chain that spanned the nation. Live-Aid. Farm-Aid. I eat and sleep my Americanism. To say that I was more American on this day or that is akin to saying when was that dog more a dog? Being an American, for better or worse, is ingrained in the fabric of my being.
I voted for the first time in 1976. I have only missed one election since (and I was in the hospital having emergency surgery, so I don’t really count that). As I age, I begin to wonder about all of the focus on Patriotism, yes with a capital p, thank you. Patriotism has come to mean saying I believe and not I know. To be a Patriot, to live by what the term American means historically, one must know. Know the history—be able to name presidents (besides Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln) who served our nation before you were born. Know the geography, touch the land, and consider what Patriots died there to ensure your freedom to just believe.
Dissent is patriotic. Apathy is not. I feel American every time I engage in a political debate. And being a liberal Bostonian living in the South that happens a lot. It’s a patriotic discussion that fosters Americanism. It creates a discourse in which I used to be proud to take part; where people of varied backgrounds share their experience for the enrichment of all.
To be a patriotic American is to speak, to write. To vote. To live the duty that defines the name. With the appellation American comes civic responsibility; voting, speaking, engaging in a process that defends freedom.
With freedom comes increased responsibility. Just because I can do something, does not mean that I should. I feel most American when I acknowledge that divide: I am free to do this, but should I? When I weigh my civic choices to those of Revere, Jefferson, Madison, and Lincoln. I feel most American when I pull my car into the parking lot every Election Day and vote.
Sure, we celebrate Memorial Day and Fourth of July. But our true celebration, as American Citizens, happens in November as we renew our commitment to our nation. When as Patriots we define our government. So, today, grill hot dogs and burgers, fly the flag, shoot some fireworks. But if you do that today and then do nothing in November, your patriotism, your Americanism is hollow. It diminishes the dream for all of us. It begs what should be a rhetorical question, when did you feel most American…