A Question For Sal … “American First?”

He was a young man of Italian descent, a student in my class at Boston College. The class is gathered around the topic: The History and Development of Racism, and features a great deal of discussion between students as we look together at the broad sweep of racism in our history. Sal had been a vigorous discussant in that group, and it is clear from his level of participation that a lot was churning in his head and heart. So I was not surprised when he requested a chance to talk about his most recent paper.

Sal’s paper was titled AMERICAN FIRST and it was, in part, an expression of his thought process through the semester, tracing what was happening in a turbulent time for him. Sal had come into the course without any strong sense of what it meant to be of Italian descent. As he heard other students articulating a vibrant meaning of their ethnic or racial background, Sal had begun to explore his Italian roots, and what he found was exciting to him. He began to say, “I’m Italian American,” but that designation did not feel comfortable on his lips, so he confronted himself in his paper to find out just what he did think and feel about his identity.

AMERICAN FIRST! was the answer to Sal’s search! So that was the first title for his paper; still there was something wrong. AMERICAN FIRST sounded a bit too much like an assertion that everything about his country had to be seen as superior to all other groups, and that was not what Sal meant. We talked about that and soon he decided that what he really wanted to say was AMERICAN FIRST! He wanted to put that “American” part of his identity at the core of expressing who he is. For Sal being an American was more important than being of Italian descent.

We talked at some length, and Sal explained that he did not want to deny the importance of his Italian heritage, that he had indeed come to a rising, new sense of pride in that part of his identity, and he felt good about that. He did not want in any way to diminish that new-found importance, nor did he want to seem to say to anyone else that their heritage was not important. But Sal was wrestling with another critical question.

For Sal the question burning within him asked, “in the midst of all this emphasis on ancestral heritage, where does the sense of unity come from for all of us who live together in the one nation?” Sal was afraid that we might lose something of vital meaning as we strive to build a nation, if we emphasize too much our differences of background. So, for him, acknowledging the importance of being Italian had to be subservient to being AMERICAN. Hence, AMERICAN FIRST! He wanted to argue in class that we all adopt that same view and begin to probe together to find what was common in being AMERICAN.

The question Sal raised is an important one. Here we are all together in the same land and, regardless of how we got here, how recently or how long ago we came, here we are, and we must work together to build a common-wealth, a nation. Isn’t it tragic, he reasoned, that we seem to find our unity only when we are at war, or in competition in the Olympics. For Sal the positive lesson to learn from the Olympics is the sense of pride he felt every time an AMERICAN did well in that competition. “That person is an AMERICAN, and that is great!” Sal affirmed. Why can’t we seek that kind of unity in all phases of our common life? Put the AMERICAN part of our background first, he was saying, and then acknowledge any other heritage we want to, but being AMERICAN was of FIRST importance.

Sal was obviously teaching himself; his questions and his answers were leading him into new explorations, explorations which were challenging him about the very role of his life in building a society. That was exciting and my job was simply to raise some other questions for him, to assist his own challenging spirit.

I knew that one question Sal was going to have to face was the extent to which he could ask others in our class to share his emphasis on AMERICAN FIRST. I wanted to affirm the search for commonness, and I tried to do that, but at the same time to suggest that everyone might not share his conviction that the answer was in AMERICAN FIRST. I was either not very clear or precise in raising the question, or Sal was so absorbed in the excitement of his own “discovery” that he could not hear my questions. So, I suggested that he try out his new theory in the next class session, to see what response it would get.

During the next class session I was eager to hear what would happen in the discussion group where I was sure Sal would raise his concern. I got into the room as Sal was posing his question; he did it well, articulating an invitation to everyone to join him in an emphasis on the fact that we all exist in “America” and, therefore, ought to be primarily concerned with being “American,” of finding together what that means as we build an “American” nation. It was a strong pleading, clearly motivated to seek what was good for all. Sal’s whole being was in his words, articulated with passion and hope. I waited to hear the response.

A young, African American man, leaning and listening, was ready with his reply. “That’s all very nice … I agree with what you want to achieve … I want to get to that sense of common unity too … but being “American” does not “do it” for me … You’ve got to recognize what the “American” business means to me … I can’t “buy into”” that! … We’ve read that history together, and being “American” to me means enslavement, and segregation, and discrimination … It doesn’t mean to me what it means to you … That’s true of our history, and it is true of our lives today. I’m not treated the same as you are treated in lots of situations today so don’t expect me to claim to be “American” FIRST … I can’t do it!”

It was calmly but forcefully stated, and then affirmed by yet another African American student. There was continuing exchange for a few minutes, during which a part of our history came very much alive once again.

Frederick Douglass and his 1852 Fourth of July Oration was there in that classroom! After acknowledging the greatness of the occasion and the importance of the Declaration of Independence for those assembled to celebrate it, Douglass asked,

What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us? And am I, therefore, called upon to bring our humble offering to the national altar, and to confess the benefits and express devout gratitude for the blessings resulting from your independence to us? … I say it with a sad sense of the disparity between us. I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity, and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. … This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. …

Sal, we cannot expect many African Americans, nor many others who have lived lives limited by prejudice, discrimination, and racism, and who continue to confront limited opportunities, to be quick to claim an identity as “American” with the fervor you feel.

I yearn too for the sense of common identity you seek, but that toward which we build must be built by all of us together. Maybe you and I need to listen to the present-day Frederick Douglasses and invite a dialogue in which that new identity and unity will truly belong to and emerge from the whole. I’m ready for that move, Sal, and I think you are too. Let’s begin by continuing the dialogue you started in class.