Pamela LewisBeing American:  A Hard-Won Identity

By Pamela A. Lewis

The definition of “American” in the 1950s and 1960s in which I was born and grew up was clear and unambiguous.  It took root in our colonial beginnings and, as articulated in our two most important documents, became the secular equivalent of holy writ.  As we pushed our frontier farther westward, we believed that definition to be immutable and eternal.  “American” presupposed patriotism, a strong (and largely Puritan) work-ethic, moral superiority, and unflinching courage in the face of any challenge.  It has guided us in how we vote for our presidents, chosen because we believed that they incarnated “American” values and upheld them as they lead their citizens.

In our popular culture, the images that filled magazine pages or passed across my black and white TV screen were also those of unassailable paragons of American virtue and defenders of our freedom.  John Wayne, Gary Cooper, and Katherine Hepburn, embodied the “American Way,” a distinct manner of thinking and moving through the world, and one we all strove to emulate if we wanted to fully enjoy a good American life.  At the start of every episode of the popular 1970s sitcom “All In the Family,” Archie and Edith Bunker banged out on their piano the lyrics from “Those Were The Days” that summed up America’s halcyon days: “And you knew who you were then/Girls were girls and men were men/Mister, we could use a man like Herbert Hoover again.”

While the question of what constituted being an American was an easy one for the majority of white Americans, it was a more complicated one for this country’s racial and ethnic minorities, and particularly for African-Americans, a group of which I am a part.  We all subscribed to our country’s claims of equality of all people, yet the painful history of slavery and the reality of our personal lives contradicted those assertions.  The trip-wire of small and large injustices over which African-Americans often fell attested to their living in a different and confusing moral universe, one where the rights and privileges enjoyed by their white counterparts were either severely limited or completely non-existent.  Separate and unequal education, denial of the right to vote, and brutally violent acts such as lynchings, stood as intractable obstacles to African-Americans’ ability to feel fully American.  Rather than sharing in the nostalgia of “Those Were They Days,” many felt that the truth was closer to the passage from the musical “West Side Story,” where the saucily sparring Puerto Rican girls and boys who dance in the song “America,” sing “Life is all right in America/If you’re all white in America.”

But as I grew into adolescence during the mid- to late 1960s, I became aware of other and more powerful voices, such as those of Martin Luther King and Malcom X, who spoke to the conscience of white and African-Americans alike in saying that a redefinition of  “America” and “American” was sorely needed.

For some, such as myself, that meaning emerged through reading the works of authors such as James Baldwin or Nikki Giovanni, whose uncompromising perspectives on American society inspired me to be more outspoken about racial injustice.  For many others, however, finding that meaning exacted a higher price: being spat upon at a lunch counter, facing down fire hoses and snarling police dogs, or in losing one’s life.

Our history has shown that unless we are first able to give full expression to our humanity, “American” has no meaning; but when our humanity is affirmed, “American” is a word we can feel truly proud to proclaim.


A lifelong resident of Queens, New York, Pamela A. Lewis is devoted to literature and the arts.  When not writing, she teaches French to eager francophile high school students.

Tune in to Starstyle® Be the Star You Are!® on February 12, 2014 at 4:40pm PT on the VoiceAmerica Empowerment Channel to listen to Pamela read her award winning essay.

Listen at Voice America Network and listen and see photos at StarStyle Radio

For more information about Be the Star You Are!®, visit Be The Star You Are or BTSYA