Who Am I or Who Are You?
Who am I or who are you? This is a question that Americans rarely think to ask of themselves because we believe we know who we are. If you were to go to the United Kingdom, and they were to ask you where you were from you would say, “America." What if they were to ask you who you were? Would you say, “I’m an American” or would you say something that identified you by region? “I’m from New York," “I’m from California,” you might even say, “oh, I’m a teacher” or “I’m a sales clerk," but what does that mean? What does it mean to be an American?
When I first thought about this question, I thought it would be easy to answer. What came to mind was, I’m a 20-year-old girl who grew up in a small city--you might even call it rural. I have been home schooled since 5th grade and did my first two years of college online. My home life was quiet; I was raised by my mom, my parents got divorced when I was 3, I have a sister who is two years older than I, but these only touch the surface of who I am--there is so much more to me.
We have all learned that sometimes people use ethnic markers to make snap judgments on who a person is: if you’re Asian you must be smart, of Middle Eastern descent, you are Muslim. Are you from India? Then you must be Hindu. Black? Then you must be from an inner-city poor family. If you are Hispanic, then you must be here illegally, right? If you are white, well, then you must live in a nice house, and own two cars. All of these are stereotypical identifiers that we have used to label ourselves or each other but are they true and do we each have different definitions for identifying our fellow Americans?
One of the ways we identify ourselves is by family and how we are raised. I was raised in a single-parent household. It was just my mom, sister and I; all our extended family on my mom’s side lived in Florida. My dad lives in Kentucky and his family lives in south Florida.This helped shape my identity because I grew up without a lot of people trying to influence my thoughts and ideas. Family stories and traditions were told by my mom but since there was no other family around, we also made our own new traditions. My mom was raised to be a good “Southern lady” by her mother and grandmother; it was important to them that she was taught about her southern roots. My mom wanted to keep that part of the family identity alive so my sister and I were brought up to say, “Yes Ma’am” and “No Ma’am” We called our mom “Mama” and were often reminded that “ladies” act a certain way.
As I’ve learned in this course family can have a major influence on how you identify yourself. In the book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua, we learned that some Asian families have a much different idea on child rearing. In this story, we learned how Chua was trying to raise her daughters to be just like Chinese children who were born and raised in China; the problem was her daughters thought of themselves as Americans not Chinese so there was a constant conflict. From this we see that sometimes people have a hard time letting go of the way their parents might have raised them and when they have children they want to continue those traditions but their children don’t always want to share that identity--they want to make their own.
Think about your own family, are your parents first, second, third or possibly fourth-generation immigrants, did their past influence how they raised you and is your upbringing going to influence how you will or might raise your children? The bigger question might be will your upbringing influence how you see yourself compared to other people in your neighborhood, town, or state? Would you want to make your idea of the American identity the same as everyone else’s--would you change your idea to fit theirs? As our cities and neighborhoods change will we are able to learn to accept all the people who come to live in our little part of the world?
I've grown up in a small town where the residents are mainly white, middle class, and college educated. The people I do meet of diversity are also middle class and college educated. When people use to ask my mother why we left Florida to move back to New York my mom would tell them she wanted her daughters to be raised in the same environment she was raised in. This is where she learned about her identity, and she wanted to expose us to different people without prejudices, so we would learn to base our opinions of people on what they did, not the color of their skin or their religion. Like my mom would say, “The two most important things you can give your children are roots and wings."
There is a disadvantage to growing up in a sheltered environment; I now feel that this has limited my exposure to how other people live. When you look at the world from an idealistic point of view, it makes it harder to understand the lives of people who grew up so different than you. If you grew up in a city, you might see yourself as someone who is more streetwise than someone who grew up on a farm, but does this really cause a change in our American identity? The answer is yes; we are a large county with many unique cultures and where we grew up makes us different in how we see ourselves. I know that when I travel to large cities that have a very diverse population I sometimes feel overwhelmed by the many different cultures. I’m not sure how to feel, all I know is that it isn’t what I’m used to. However, what unites us are our love for freedom and independence and our proud heritages. That is what everyone has brought to America; these loves are what make as united under a single American identity.
Our ancestors have had a major influence on how we see America and how we have come to call ourselves Americans. Take a moment to think about what that statement is really saying and asking you to think about. “Our ancestors have had a major influence on how we see America and how we have come to call ourselves Americans.” What does that statement mean to you? My great-grandfather grew up in Kentucky, and I’ve been told that when he first met someone he would often ask, “Who are your people?” This is a very telling question because it can be answered in so many ways.
So, let me take a moment to tell you who my people are and what helped create my American identity. I like to think of myself as a founding American. My mother’s side of the family took two very different paths to come to America. My grandfather’s family, the Williams/Bartow clan, got its footing here by coming as captured Irishmen back when the British forced men to become sailors. These ancestor schanged their name to Williams from Allsworth before the Revolutionary War. After they escaped from British hold they fought to help gain America her independence, many of their descendants have now become Daughters of the Revolution. From the shores of Massachusetts to upstate New York, they settled and raised families who fought in many wars, from the Revolutionary War to the Civil War as Union soldiers to Korea. They were farmers, and railroad men; they were housewives, mothers and partners in this new nation. They traveled west and back east working as forest spudders, and met Buffalo Bill Cody. I’ve even been told that my distant grandmother’s family came over on the Mayflower and the first woman to set foot on the new land was a relative.
My mother’s mother side of the family came in through the Carolinas from England. They are the Thomas and Hicks side of the family. They too were farmers and worked the forest. Some owned slaves; some were dirt poor; some fought the Indians and some married into them. They fought in the Civil War as good Confederate soldiers and died for their beliefs. Some walked the “Trail of Tears,” or so the story goes. They grew and moved from farms to cities and farming to factories. We even have bloodlines to President Polk.
My dad’s side of the family is just as colorful. On his father's side, you can trace his family back to the second settlement at Jamestown, VA. They crossed the state to become farmers and neighbors of President James Madison in Orange, Virginia, then moved on to Kentucky. They were farmers, and tug boat captains. They fought in the Civil War on the Union side and fought in both World Wars. It was a distant relative on my dad’s father’s side, a Houchin, who is credited with finding “Mammoth Cave” in Kentucky.
On my dad’s mother’s side, you have the Jones, Comb branch: good strong English names. Again, the families came in through Virginia and farmed and hunted their way across to Kentucky. My great-grandfather Charles Green (Red) Jones owned a mule team and carried supplies over the mountains in Kentucky, married and raised seven children in the coal-mining camps in the hollers of Eastern Kentucky. He was involved in helping form the coal unions and wrote a book entitled Growing up Hard in Harlan County when he was in his sixties. My great-grandmother was unique because she not only graduated high school but also went to college--something that was not normally done in the early 1900s. From these humble roots, my dad’s family grew and changed to leaving the coal mines and become successful businessmen and -women, bringing their families out of the hard life of coal mining and into the safety of business ownership.
Of course, each family has more modern stories to share. My great uncle has won several Broken Wing awards from the Army for landing disabled aircraft safety. My mom's brother was a long-haul truck driver and rode Harleys. He never went to college but insisted that my sister and I go and instructed my mom that neither my sister nor I should work while in school. He passed away at the age of 45, and my mom has kept her promise to him regarding working and school.
What does this have to do with American identities, you might ask. Think about your own families, where are they from, what hardships did they endure to bring you to the place you are today? This to me is truly the heart of our collective identity: the woven stories and history of our families and how they have shaped and changed us to become not only who we are as individuals but who we are as a country.
While you would think that with all that diversity in our collective history and families, we would be more tolerant of the different people who are currently coming to our country, it doesn’t always work that way. Even though we are a nation of immigrants, we still have very strong ideas of who should be a new American. Even my generation is influenced by where we live and how this new influx of people affects us personally. In the northeast in the small city I live in the influx of immigrants haven’t had a large impact on us, but I can’t say this is true for others living in other parts of the country. This influx of immigrants is reshaping our identity, and it is also causing us to stop and think about who we are and where we stand on this difficult issue. Let me give you some personal examples of how some of the different generations look at the new immigrants.
You see, my grandparents live in Florida, my mom’s dad lives in Jacksonville, which is among the 13 largest cities in the United States, and my dad’s parent’s live in Naples, Florida, which is located right outside of one of the biggest-growing areas in south Florida.
When I have visited my dad’s parents in Naples, I am always surprised by the dislike for anyone who is not just like them; by this, I mean anyone who is Hispanic. If you were to believe my grandparents, you would think every Hispanic person in the United States was an illegal immigrant, and that our county is being destroyed by the flood of people coming from South America. My grandparents would like to blame this group of people for “hard-working American” not having jobs. Now I know this isn’t true, and I’ve often thought that I personally won’t want to do the hard work that they do. I don’t want to stand in the sun all day and work for hardly any pay, and I’m grateful that I can go to the store and pick up a tomato or an orange. We need to stop and think, what do these people bring to our country and more important, why don’t we want them to make it their country? Is it because we fear for our jobs? Maybe it's because we are afraid they will change what we see as “our” country, or maybe we are afraid that we will lose our identity. I think that is the biggest reason, fear of losing what we inherently think of as ours. We seem to have forgotten that Mexico owned most of Texas, Arizona and New Mexico before America got those areas in the spoils of war in the Mexican-American War of 1846.
When it comes to my mom’s father, he seems to have a problem with people of Middle Eastern descent. Let me tell you a little about my grandpa: he moved back to Florida when he was 45 after living in upstate New York from age 26 on; anyway, while living in Florida, he worked as a repair person for a coffee company. At this job he dealt a lot with small convenience stores, and a lot of these are independently owned by people from the Middle East and Asia.
The problem started because it is common for Middle Eastern culture to haggle for everything and of course in America our prices are set and usually not negotiable. My grandfather took their bartering style and viewed it as them trying to get something for nothing; in his eyes it was not much above stealing. He would get so mad that they would argue over everything he had to charge them for, and I could see where after a while it could begin to feel like you might want them to go back to where it was common to negotiate for everything you purchased. Regardless of how much we tried to explain this to him, he still was set in his ways, and even though it was disturbing to hear him make certain remarks we knew we were not going to be able to change his mind.
I find this common among older people, and I know that some of it is because of who they are and how they were raised, but it is still hard to be around. You would think that knowing their own family's background they would be more tolerant, but for many it was just too long ago for them to remember. Maybe the families had worked hard to elevate themselves to their current status in life and they don’t understand why it’s harder for today's immigrants. You would think they would want to give this new influx of people a chance. Maybe it’s because we now have more enemies in the world and newcomers are looked at with suspicion. But, what about the Irish or the Germans when they came here? Weren’t they, too, looked at and thought of as outsiders? If you look at your family backgrounds, you will probably see that many of your ancestors worked hard to raise themselves up from humble beginnings to where they are today. Don’t you think we should give new immigrants the same chance? The new generation of immigrants has made as many sacrifices to get to this country as most of the earlier generations but many people are still of the mindset that they haven’t paid their dues to be called Americans yet.
When I think of the study of American Identities, I think about learning what it is to be an American. This is not an easy thing to do, because everyone’s identity can be defined in so many ways. It can be defined by where we live, who our ancestors were; it can be defined by our monetary status, the region we live in or grow up in. What I do know is that we are all different, and yet we are all the same: we are Americans.
Now if I were to ask myself the same question as in the beginning of the semester, I would answer it very differently. Who am I? I am a young white woman who was raised in a divorced household. I am lucky because my parents still get along. I have a sister who is two years older and me; both my sister and I are college educated. My mom has been a big influence on me by instilling the love of our own family history. I’ve learned wonderful stories about my family's adventures in early America and have many great family members, who helped shape this country. I've also learned to try to understand where my grandparents get their point of view about who they believe should be considered Americans, and even though I don’t agree with them, I now have the tools to try to help them see my side of the story.
I hope that this makes you want to find out about your families and what makes them and you part of the American Identity. I bet with some questions to grandparents, aunts and uncles as well as parents you will find out that their stories help you better understand who you are and how your family has help create our country’s identity.