What Does It Mean To Be American?

by Manuel García, Jr.

June 7, 2004   


I pledge allegiance to the flag
Of the altered states in America
And to the republic-of-dreams for which it stands,
One nation under the gods, the goddesses,
The spirits of the ancestors,
And the great unknowable void,
With liberty to imagine justice
For all.

"Are you an American?" I've been asked since I can remember and to this day. I'm never sure, let's just say I'm trying.

Being born here is not enough. I know, I was, and still most Americans think I'm a foreigner. I was born in the upper West Side -- Spanish Harlem -- in the time of Machito. I have a black moustache (well, had) and a permanent tan "to die for" -- if your skin is plucked-chicken white and you can afford the "color." I've been taken for every kind of Latino (I'm Cuban-Puerto Rican), for Egyptian, Persian, Turkish, and even black.

"My story is much too sad to be told...," Ella Fitzgerald doing Cole Porter's "I Get A Kick Out Of You," that's me.

Today, there is much feverish fantasy about patriotism, and many assume a real American is the usual stereotype of the beer-bellied, baseball-cap knuckleheaded, pasty-faced palooka who drives a pickup; loves the 3 B's: baseball, basketball and football; eats steak without vegetables; and is entwined with a tight-ass cowgirl or bimbo-fluffy suburban SUV mama, who's got the mall floor plan imprinted in her cerebral cortex, and has mapped out decades of smothering protective love over the lives of her young: Jennifer and Jonathan, or Kiley and Toby, and is as far away from Lou Reed's "a girlfriend named Samantha" in "Street Hassle" as it is possible for human genetics to produce. And still, such people can be real -- it is not automatic -- as can many a "Samantha" and her inner-urban boyfriend, perhaps the quintessential Anglo-American, the one that makes a suburban lovesick New Jersey Jewish rock-and-roll composer boy realize how much he aches to be the ultimate Anglo -- "I Wanna Be Black."

"...you have drank -- of the fountains -- of innocence...there's a dream -- where the contents -- are visible...where the poetic -- champions compose...," Van Morrison doing "Queen Of The Slipstream," that's me.

Real Americans have vision not to be confused with greed, motivation and drive not to be confused with ambition, and innocence not to be confused with stupidity.

"It's knowing that your door is always open - and your path is free to walk..." Elvis doing "Gentle On My Mind," that's me. "True love -- travels on a gravel road..." that's me channeled by Elvis, along with so many others.

There are many American-born fakes. The loud ones self-identify with variations on the mantra "America is Number One!" Real Americans don't care about being a number, they care about being. Is George W. Bush a real American? Nah, he's a fake. There's lots like that, cheap crap passed off to a dumb-ass public who'll pay good money for something big, loud and empty. Dubya is a real fake, of which we have lots, since big fat useless empty is a big part of fake America, which everybody knows of course, but which we still feel necessary to be embarrassed about when we think. Not embarrassed enough to stop producing them, there's just too much money to be made pushing out fake stuff, and money is GOD, money is Jack Number One in Jack-Off Nation. That's why Rupert Murdoch (another fake) is here. And the multi-million head penis of Jack One are the guns of Jack-Off Nation, stroked compulsively in an auto-erotic neurosis to discharge our fantasies of power. Guns of the Pentagon world-jacking, guns of the street punks car-jacking, guns on the lobotomy-umbilical TV net volition-jacking, guns in the playgrounds in grammar schools child-jacking. I'm dying, I want to vacuum every dollar out of every pocket and portfolio in the country (and those "offshore") and light a bonfire that can be seen from space: smoke-signals to the Tralfamadorians, "Send help!"

But wait...

"Our life -- together -- is so precious -- together -- we have grown -- we have growww-ow-ow-own...and our love -- is still special -- let's take a chance and fly away -- somewhere -- alo-o-own," John Lennon's "Starting Over," that's me, that's real America, "...don't let another day go by -- it'll be -- just like starting over..."

Yes, lots of foreigners are REAL Americans, and lots of born Americans are pure fakes. Get it? OK, I'll keep going.

"Your love - is lifting me higher -- than I've ever -- been lifted before..." Jackie Wilson taking flight, there is hardly any higher peak of Anglo-American ecstasy. If you are unmoved, you are un-American.

Anglo-American? Yeah, "such a feeling's coming over me..." Karen Carpenter doing the best country music ever uttered (yes, this is true). The true voice of white American imagination with heart. OK, Elvis gets in there, and James Taylor brings country to philosophy when he opens with "Something in the way she moves..." Yes, heart is the high of love, and it draws us all in. "Love me tender -- love me sweet -- never let me go -- you have made my life complete -- and I love you so..." to hear Elvis do this and be unmoved is to be from Mars. Beyond all the money-grubbing, soul-sucking scum that interposes itself between the pure American artist and the audience, is the product of genius, a direct pipeline to the eternal, the universal voice of being. "Holy smokes and land sakes alive -- I never thought this could happen to me -- I got stung!..."

"Get Happy," that's true America. Hear Judy Garland do this Harold Arlen tune to get the real feeling of being an American. A gay Jewish composer writing a Negro spiritual (sort of), and sung by a Jewish-American gamin vocal genius. Even so, love the Ella Fitzgerald version -- can anyone sing better? Frank Sinatra said of Ella, "man, woman or child, she is the best." On this, he was right. "Hallelujah -- hallelujah -- come you sinners -- gather round...a land where the weary are forever free...forget your troubles and just get happy!..." Brothers and sisters, this is the best revival you will ever attend. Listen to the sax in the Ella version, the real thing, feel it? If you're moving, you're American. "Get ready for the judgment dayyyyyyyy!"

And what will our Judgment Day be like? Wilson Pickett will lead the choir in "Everybody Needs Somebody," as the waiting and wanting rejoice at their liberation and reward. Dubya and the fakes will be clueless, but probably worried on seeing the Vietcong in judges robes behind the bench.

The Vietcong are real Americans, one of our purest strains. They are one side of the American psyche denied in a psychosis of self-avoidance, a schizophrenia of psychic amputation. Instead of throwing troops fed on Rexroth and Kerouac at them, we unleashed troops fed on Playboy and quarter-pounders at this Buddhist, Third-World side of our psyche. We saw the tragedy of cornball-fed doughboy Cain killing riceball-fed water buffalo boy Abel. Ho Chi Minh could have been the Teddy Roosevelt inversion for our times -- imagine his face on Mount Rushmore.

Instead of Ho's visage in the Black Hills, we have the Black Wall etched in tears, the scar that will never heal because truth-facing is MIA. Time for some "Highway 61 Revisited," ("God said to Abraham, 'Kill me a son,' Abe said, 'Man, you must be putting me on'..."), time for some Aretha Franklin ("Baby -- baby -- baby..."). Our artists can only point to the moon, and we could see that light were we willing to forsake obsessing about the fingers. Dance on, danzón, bugaloo.

"Good lovin'..." by the Rascals, the best rock and roll song ever. If you disagree, you haven't heard it loud enough. Can't take it? Then, if you're young, you've not got the American pulse; c'est la vie.

But, must everything American be blaring, brassy and bawdy? Of course not, listen to the Navaho flute of Nakai, or the soaring sonorities of Dvorak's New World Symphony, yes Bohemian and yes American. And listen to Dvorak's musical grandson: Duke Ellington.

The pulse is deep, it is wide, it can soar high, it can connect to the navel of the world and unfurl the panorama of eternity, and it is grand, and generous and heartbreaking, like a starry sky melting into the melon glow of dawn over southwest desert mountains. The wail of fighter plane turbines drilling through that reverential space is part of real America too, but it is that part which is so easy to make fake.

So, what makes for real America? Is it historical primacy, or historical prominence, or just longevity? "The People," ersatz Indians, Native Americans, "indigenous peoples" are the bedrock of America, the impermeable stratum to which the blood that soaked into the land settled to cake and bind into a matting supporting the overlaying weave of America that Europe, Africa and Asia have knitted into the fabric of our culture. The noises of this catastrophe, this tragedy, this miracle, are woven into the sounds of its music, its joy of Cuban son, our salsa, the lubrication of spirit, the celebration of time's passage that bathes the soul in effulgence of inchoate insight, beating like the heart of an infant, a hummingbird, or -- in slow motion -- a rock-and-roller. A real American is the issue of the survivors from old cultures that have fallen away, or are kept hidden from public defilement. They are Adams and Eves, innocent, spoiled and open to inheriting the earth, ignorant, cold and witless to the hunger of the outer world crushed by the weight of America's joy. To be a truly real American is to see all this, to be driven insane by the clarity of understanding the holocaust we unleash upon this earth, and of splashing out unhindered by truth or moral vision, into a life of maximal creativity and expression. How else are we to understand a Billie Holiday, a Jim Morrison, a Winslow Homer, a Dorothy Day?

When you understand what it means to be a real American, then you can see that most Cubans are real Americans, where most Floridians are not; that most Mexicans are real Americans while most Californians are not; and that many immigrants will never be real Americans, though probably most always were. If this essay makes no sense to you, then you are sober in your delusions, for I am drunk in my insights. Insight knows itself to be particular, whereas delusion imagines itself to be general. This separates Carlos Castañeda from John Ashcroft. If you don't like my icons, then pick your own, just make sure they are real, like Crazy Horse and Noam Chomsky, instead of fakes like George Armstrong Custer and Henry Kissinger. If this rant makes any sense to you, then you are capable of seeing that the America that will survive into the 22nd century, in peace and security, is as remote from the America of George W. Bush as that of Mark Twain was from J. P. Morgan's, or Kurt Vonnegut's is from Richard Nixon's.

Real America is like a psychic glue binding us all together across our ethnic and intellectual territories, with a common sentiment that is Henry Fonda in "12 Angry Men," Gregory Peck in "To Kill A Mockingbird," Sidney Poitier in "Lilies Of The Field," Audrey Hepburn in "Breakfast At Tiffany's" and the voice of Ella Fitzgerald doing the songs of Gershwin and Cole Porter.

We all have our private-language ethnicities, some based on culture and tradition, like Vietnamese or Mexican, others being intentional modern concoctions based on identity. But real Americans connect trans-ethnically through a psychic web of mutually-held vision and appreciation. Real America is alive in the Carnivals held in schoolyards by parents gathering funds for music and art education, and library books for their children, by issuing the products of their kitchens: cookies, bundt cakes, lumpia, spring rolls and ribs. Watch the kindergartners dance the Hula!

The real America is a spirit that is too easily raped, as George W. Bush and his gang have done, and too tough to be easily overcome, as the delusional enemies of our delusional nation have assumed.

When the Lincoln of our times is found, then the many chords of real America will sing in harmony, and the fascist myopia of taxless property will fall away before a harmony of vision worthy of Eugene V. Debs. An America that fails to open its loving arms to its own cannot survive, and cannot be real. "Do I love you, do I?..." Oh yes, Ella.

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Manuel García, Jr. is a graduate aerospace engineer, working as a physicist at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. He did underground nuclear testing between 1978 and 1992. He is concerned with employee rights and unionization at the nuclear weapons labs, and the larger issue of their social costs. Otherwise, he is an amateur poet who is fascinated by the physics of fluids, zen sensibility, and the impact of truth.

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Published June 7, 2004
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