Vanity Fair magazine sponsored a nationwide contest in 2004 for an essay on The True American Character. As I prepared to write an essay and enter the competition, I spent about six weeks thinking about the topic, reviewing American history, interviewing family and friends, and allowing my thoughts to distill over time. Then, one morning I awoke with the intent of writing the essay. I had no preconceived idea of what I would write. I just sat down and it flowed out exactly as it is printed here. Its poetic nature surprised me, its metaphor. I realized how passionate I feel about my country.
America has existed as a beacon of hope in the world, ever since our founding. But, we are teetering on the brink of losing the confidence of people world-wide that we can live-up to the principles our constitution requires of us.
Will we be the first generation of Americans who forget what being an American truly means? The world views most Americans as supreme shoppers, a self-centered culture uninformed about the world community.
What does it mean to be an American today in the 21st century? Here is what I wrote that morning when my heart was so full of love for my country:
The True American Character
Some people believe that America exists in forever spacious skies, purple mountain majesty, and the fruited plain. America is not a place. America exists within the mind. It is an ideal that ignited into its brightest flame on the North American continent, thousands of years before colonists settled on Eastern shores.
It was an idea whose time had come.
Birthed from the loins of Liberty, it came like a bright light in the midst of human strife. It came like a gentle rain on hardened soil, loosening each grain of rock for a seed to grow. The idea that all could be free…it was present on this continent.
The American mind was here when Europeans first stepped upon these shores. As pilgrims felled trees, and the air was filled with the sharp sound of the ax and saw and the heavy scent of hardwood, Liberty gazed through dark eyes in the green of thick woods. Liberty was bronze, bedecked in eagle feathers and soft hide. Liberty was sleek, bounding in a sunlit meadow, and silk-haired diving below blue waters. Liberty was vigorous.
It set minds to dreaming.
America is a belief, a principal of life – that all beings are free and self-determined. America means harm no thing. America means respect for all life. That is what America is and what a true American lives by. To live otherwise is to diminish it.
Those who came and still come to America are changed by Liberty. Immigrants think they made America. They think they thought of her. But Liberty made them think America. It was she who changed their minds and made their thoughts go to dreaming. She was already here among the people and the animals and all throughout the land. A true American understands this.
Liberty whispers in the ear: Let them all be free! Take only what you need and share the rest. Glory in the abundance therein. See the sunrise and the sunset, swim the clear lakes, and eat the flesh of my fruit.
Liberty is a shimmering light on the rounded lip of water spilling over stones. Liberty is the glint in the eye of a child. Her voice is the high pitched scream of a hawk soaring off its prominence. Liberty is the cry of a man to be free at last!
America is an impulse. Americans are animated by it and driven to play out its creed. America’s elixir is Liberty, and once tasted, nothing will ever satisfy the soul again.
Liberty stalks the dark places.
Liberty walks the land with sure feet and white garments that dazzle the eye. She has a voice like a bell ringing. Americans listen for her coming. Sometimes she awakens them from their sleep. Liberty stalks the dark places in peoples’ hearts and minds. She says firmly: Let them all be free!
Americans like the sight and sound of Liberty. She is their beacon of hope and great teacher. When confusion comes and when strife and conflict arise, true Americans look for Liberty. They listen for her voice across the land and through the woods. When they hear it – the bell that rings so clearly – they can go on… they can endure anything.
A true American is ever vigilant. An American dissents if Liberty is threatened. An American has a certain kind of angst when told what to think or do: call it “democratic irritability.” It is the sign of true Americans. Listen to their voices:
Is there not something worthy of perpetuation in our Indian spirit of democracy, where Earth, our mother, was free to all, and no one sought to impoverish or enslave his neighbor? ~ Ohiyesa, Santee Sioux (1858 – 1939)
Yes, your honor, I have many things to say; for in your ordered verdict of guilty, you have trampled under foot every vital principle of our government. My natural rights, my civil rights, my political rights, my judicial rights, are all alike ignored. ~ Susan B. Anthony, Women’s Rights Leader (1820 – 1906)
When I first decided to take a firm stand against the war in Vietnam, I was subjected to the bitterest criticism, by the press, by individuals, and even by some fellow civil rights leaders. There were those who said that I should stay in my place, that these two issues did not mix and I should stick with civil rights. Well I had only one answer for that and it was simply the fact that I have struggled too long and too hard now to get rid of segregation in public accommodations to end up at this point in my life segregating my moral concerns.” ~ Martin Luther King, Jr.,Civil Rights Leader (1929 – 1968)
No face which we can give to a matter will stead us as well at last as the truth. This alone wears well…. Say what you have to say, not what you ought. Any truth is better than make-believe.
~ David Henry Thoreau, American Dissenter (1817 – 1862)
Because we have suffered, and we are not afraid to suffer in order to survive, we are ready to give up everything – even our lives – in our struggle for justice.
~ Cesar Chavez, Leader of the Farm Workers’ Civil Rights Movement (1927 – 1993)
The strongest reason why we ask for woman a voice in the government under which she lives… is because of her birthright to self-sovereignty; because, as an individual, she must rely on herself. ~ Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Women’s Rights Leader (1815 – 1902)