“Only by learning to live in harmony with your contradictions can you keep it all afloat.” – Audre Lorde
Over the course of the True American mini-series, we’ve deconstructed symbols that we think of as “typically American.” In the process, we’ve gained a more nuanced understanding of the assumptions surrounding the historical pillars of American culture and identity— and shed light on what a “true” American looked like then and now.
The polarization that America experiences today is in part due to feelings of nostalgia and protectiveness for a “simpler time” in the nation’s past when the culture and its people were supposedly more homogenous.
However, as our investigations into square dancing and the banjo demonstrate, this version of America’s past as one solely featuring European immigrants on the frontier is a fabrication of the collective imagination. Other cultures and influences, especially from African people who were captured and displaced, not to mention the Native Americans who were already residents on those frontiers, have deeply influenced American identity and its traditions since the birth of the nation.
The romanticized images of a white Appalachia and folk culture that paint a picture of “the golden days” of folk Americana were reinforced by the exclusion of diverse voices from recorded history. As the old saying goes, history is written by the victor.
Reframing the past
Now, thanks to the exploration of contemporary folk musicians like Rhiannon Giddens and Jake Blount, history is being rewritten to include the forgotten stories of marginalized people. And, perhaps more importantly, artists deliver their message in an emotionally impactful way that reaches those who don’t have the time to dig into the academic papers about identity politics which is—let’s face it—most of us.
Taking a critical look at what we think we know about the past, decolonizing history, questioning the idea of what an American looks like, and reassessing American values is an ongoing conversation in the US. It sometimes feels like the country (and the collective consciousness) is being fiercely pulled in opposite directions.
While many in the US are celebrating the removal of Confederate monuments and the inclusion of the first statue of a Black American in the Capitol’s statue collection, America’s racial trauma runs deep, and still requires attention. Perhaps the most hopeful observation to make around fatal race-based violence like 2021’s Atlanta spa shootings or 2020’s murder of George Floyd, is that these events sparked more conversation, and more attention to the wounds that remain in a nation built on the backs of enslaved and indentured peoples, on land stolen from the indigenous population.
This leaves Americans, especially Americans of color, striving to make sense of their identity within America—a country they are inextricably connected to yet feel rejected by all at once—and to thread their stories through the nation’s tapestry, solidifying their roles in its making.
New shades of Americana
If you’re interested in exploring more music that reveals a new understanding of American identity, past and present, and Africa’s role in forming it, check out the Carolina Chocolate Drops. This old-time string band from North Carolina was co-founded by Rhiannon Giddens and was mentored by fiddler Joe Thompson, the last in a long line of traditional Black string band players in his family. The group is no longer together, but Giddens (who just won a grammy for best folk album) continues to be a force in American and world folk music.
For Example, Giddens also forms part of Our Native Daughters, a group of four Black female banjo players that highlights the foundational contributions of Black communities to American folk and popular music. Another member of the group is Leyla McCalla, a musician of Haitian heritage who, via music, investigates the deep Haitian roots that run through New Orleans.
To shed light on the unexpected ways in which country music resonates with immigrant communities and pockets of people in Zimbabwe, Thailand, and South Africa, listen to this episode of the RadioLab podcast.
Forging a new identity—an international conversation
Americans aren’t the only ones grappling with a contentious past and doing the hard work of unpacking what it means to be a product of this history. For further reading on this theme and how it is being explored in a context that is different but adjacent to that of the US, check out Johny Pitts’ written documentary Afropean: Notes from Black Europe.
His work, like Giddens’, allows the reader a glimpse into the forgotten and ignored lives of the people who make various countries throughout Europe. Pitts offers an on-the-ground view of an entirely hidden continent populated by those who do not claim African nor European identity but have forged a new and unhyphenated existence.
A New National Anthem
On September 29, 2022, Ada Limòn will succeed Joy Hajo as the Poet Laureate of the United States. Harjo was the first Native American poet to hold this post, and Limòn carries the tradition of acknowledging formerly marginalized voices recognized for their powerful observations of what makes us American and human. Watch Joy Harjo reflect on her three-year term as Poet Laureate.
After that, read Ada Limòn’s poem, A New National Anthem. The poem asks if it isn’t time for a new song for our nation, and ends with this evocative thought:
“that song that’s our birthright,
that’s sung in silence when it’s too hard to go on,
that sounds like someone’s rough fingers weaving
into another’s, that sounds like a match being lit
in an endless cave, the song that says my bones
are your bones, and your bones are my bones,
and isn’t that enough?”
Is that not enough?