What Does It Mean To Be American Today?

by Zoe Kaplan


The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word American as “Relating to or characteristic of the United States or its inhabitants.” That definition is by no means wrong, but I believe that there is so much more to being American. Being American is being able to define that for yourself. The core value of freedom of opinion allows us to make that decision and not necessarily agree with any other person.

In 2014, New York Times writers Damien Cave and Todd Heisle drove up Interstate 35, starting in Texas and ending in Minnesota. Along the way, they asked 35 people what it means to be American. Their responses varied greatly, from being politically involved to being able to eat as often as you’d like. As I scrolled through the comments section, I saw the same phrase time and time again, “To be American means to be free.” To be free, according to these readers, means you can say what you want when you want, to use your money and property however you wish, and to be able to pursue your dreams. This, of course, is only what 398 readers of the New York Times’ beliefs are, and the citizen’s opinions cannot be summed up by this select group of people.

A reporter from NPR visited the National Mall on July 4, 2018, arguably the most American day of the year, and asked people the same question. Again the answers varied from being able to go to church to feeling safe because our army is protecting us. An overarching theme of pride is very present in the piece.

In March 2017, PBS published an article on their website stating that the answer to this question changes based off of your political beliefs. The study they cite, conducted by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, shows that Republicans are more likely to base their definition of Americans around the traditions of early European settlers while Democrats look towards our infamous history as a melting pot.

Steinbeck notes in “Travels With Charley” (1962) that despite the expansive amount of land that America covers, there is a certain image that is upheld throughout all of the states. When first reading that, I felt like it was directly juxtaposed against my original statement of self-definition, but upon reading back, I realized that it didn’t have to be. Steinbeck wrote that the more he inspected the American image, the less sure of it he was. My theory is that Steinbeck wasn’t looking at the American image, but rather the human image in America. Maybe the American image doesn’t have one cohesive definition, but is rather the amalgamation of many human dreams and pursuits, all coming together as a collective voice in the United States. Maybe the laws of this country provide a place for the human dream to foster and grow, and that’s what defines us the most.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *