My family, the part from Europe, came to these shores very early. Pretty much as soon as there was a boat to Virginia, they were on it. I'm a descendent of two Revolutionary War captains (Capt. Thomas Amis and Capt. Thomas Austin) and also, via my great-grandmother, of one Thomas Pitman. Pitman was involved in Bacon's Rebellion, which was sort of the seventeenth-century practice run for the Revolution, except that it didn't go so well. Many of the participants were hanged; my progenitor was pardoned by King Charles II, and thus I am here to talk to you today and carry on the family tendency towards troublemaking. I am a tenth-generation American...not including the ones who were already living on this continent and whose generations are uncountable. I don't think this makes me better than anyone else, mind. I think America is something you show up and participate in, and what you do counts far more than how long your history here is. Nonetheless, I do have history.
Members of my family have served this country in various wars (well, some of them were technically fighting against the United States, but we will gloss over that.) My father was a decorated hero in World War II and four of my five brothers served in Vietnam. Many members of my family have served their communities and people as educators, from my great-grandfathers on two sides of my family, my grandmother and great-aunt, my mother, my aunt, my sister, and myself.
I was born and raised in a small town in north Georgia, at the southern end of the Appalachians, and have lived in Georgia all my life.
And yet, I have a sneaking feeling Sarah Palin and her ilk would not consider me a "real American." This in spite of the fact that my family gave up secessionist tendencies over a hundred years ago, unlike some people.
It seems you are only a real American, according to the Republicans, if you live in the states or rural areas where they have the most support, and you agree with the majority there. In other words, if you vote Republican. Being a citizen and knowing what the Constitution actually says don't count any more. Being a part of this country's two-hundred-year tradition of volunteerism and "community organizing" is obviously right out.
I now live in the liberal hippy-dippy freaktastic indie-rock epicenter of Georgia, described by comedian Patton Oswalt as a "weird bubble dream city of goodness," which lies along the axis of woo running south on US 441 from Asheville, NC...that is to say, Athens, GA. Athens, a city of about 100,000 people, has its own Human Rights Festival and its own drag king troupe, more independent record stores than corporate ones, and a Tree That Owns Itself in defiance of human-centric notions of property rights. The University of Georgia is here and while we do have the Cult of the Bulldawg and a thriving population of rednecks (smile when you say that, bubba), we also have suspiciously liberal-sounding educational practices such as the only School of Ecology in the country. I personally have an MFA in Creative Writing with a graduate certificate in Women's Studies, and I work in the English department. I recycle and eat organic, locally grown food. I have been known to organize in my community. I even worked on the campaign of a local Democrat...which around here, I might add, makes me a political moderate.
Apparently all this means I am not a "real American." I guess that makes me an imaginary American.
All right, then. I will imagine. America.
I imagine an America where everyone can get health care, and we have the lowest infant mortality rate in the world...instead of the highest among industrialized nations.
I imagine an America where the government does not issue slithery and putrid justifications for the torture of prisoners, because no one in any position of authority would ever condone such a thing.
I imagine an America where we do not allow children to go homeless or hungry, because we recognize our obligations to each other as citizens of a common society.
I imagine an America where the Constitution is both well-understood and well-revered by those who vow to uphold it and whose authority to govern flows from it.
I imagine an America where no one suffers from the delusion that one can bestow democracy or freedom at gunpoint.
I imagine an America where I, as a woman, get paid equally for equal work, and no one questions that my health is a legitimate concern, even when it conflicts with the desire of others to impose their religious mores on everyone or to avoid being grossed out by the facts of reproduction.
I imagine an America where dissent is as patriotic as Thomas Paine, and not only when you agree with conservatives.
I imagine an America that lives up to its better self. I imagine an America that is not divided. I imagine an America that remembers who we really are.
I like that America. I want to live there. It's not where I have been living, to be sure, but it seems like a place that is possible.