Like Brad’s blog posted this morning, I could not discuss anything other then this week’s historic election and I will also start with a question. Unlike Brad, I can not promise to avoid all emotional gushing. Please excuse me this once.
“What, then, is the American, this new man?”
This question was first posed by Crevecoeur in the 18th Century and was again considered by my students last week. Wednesday morning, as I unfolded one of the last copies of the
Washington Post in the city, I smiled and recalled this ageless question.
When Crevecoeur, a French gentleman who was enchanted by the new
world and the new identity forming, asked this question he also
answered it: a simple yet hard working Pennsylvania farmer. By the time
the Revolutionary War began, Crevecoeur already found it necessary to
redefine his “American man”.
Likewise, we are in the midst of social change that requires re-defining American identity.
In his speech, President-elect Obama reminded us that we are a nation held together by shared ideas:
"Tonight we proved once more that the true strength of our nation comes
not from the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from the
enduring power of our ideals: democracy, liberty, opportunity and
unyielding hope. That’s the true genius of America: that America can
The beauty, then, of America is that our shared ideas and identity are
always in flux and perpetual redefinition. Each generation offers a new
answer to Crevecoeur’s question, "What is the American, this new man?"
Each generation redefines, reclaims, and reassesses American identity
to create the definition fresh and ever new.
Tuesday night, America, in a crystal clear voice, enunciated a new
answer to this classic question and Obama crystallized that definition.
For me, American identity is a very different thing today then it was
Monday. Now is the time to discuss our new definition of America. I
offer these two changes:
Equal Opportunity – Overnight, the horizon of potential for millions
of American expanded exponentially. I saw a little boy on TV choke up
while speaking of the chance that he too could be president. He
literally could not utter the word ‘President’. He could only lay his
head down and cry.
The American Dream – I am thinking now that there is no single
“American Dream”, rather, what is unique is that America dreams and we
dream big. In Obama’s acceptance speech we were reminded of the history
of America’s dreams: suffrage for all, trips to the moon, Democracy’s
increase, and Dr. Martin Luther King’s dream of equality. Tuesday night
and well into Wednesday morning, I skipped, ran, and hugged my way
through Howard University, down the U street corridor and to finally
sing in front of the White House. In the streets with me and in other
cities, thousands of people left their homes with renewed (for the first
time for many) belief in American’s power to Dream.
Tuesday expanded millions of Americans horizons, but religion and
sexual orientation still limit millions of others from achieving equal
opportunity. We also made strides to achieve some of our most
auspicious dreams, especially Dr. Kings but we are still a long way
from realizing “a more perfect union”. – The American, this new man, is
far from complete and will need to be redefined again and again.
After a campaign season that made various claims to define real
American, we witnessed both the fruits of great social change and
planed the seeds for even more change.
I’m excited to see how we will answer “What, then, is the American,
this new man?” in eight years and to imagine how my children will
answer in their turn.