Not long ago, someone I didn’t know well asked me a short question: “Who are you?” I had no real answer, no good answer, and I knew it from the moment the question was asked.
This question comes back to me sometimes, especially early in the morning when my family is asleep and the world around me is quiet. I think that when I first heard it, it felt like an important question about me. Now I wonder if the better, more important question is about us. Rather than thinking about who I am, lately I’ve been thinking about who we are.
Every time I say or think “we,” I assume the existence and coherence of a group. I assume I’m part of that group. And I assume there are others outside that group. “We” is a quick, presumptuous, and potent way to include and exclude. It’s a short, common word that does deep, often hidden work.
I say “we” all the time. We do too.
When we constituted ourselves as a nation, our first word was “we.” What we meant by “we” was “the People of the United States.” There’s no “we” quite like the national “we,” particularly in a nation that claims to be ruled by the people, for the people. “We” is what we perpetually assert and negotiate: “We need a wall.” “We go high.” “We’re the ones we’ve been waiting for.” Coming from so many different states, different places, different everythings, “we” is what we always have to argue about.
“We” feels like a frequent and perpetual test of our loyalties, and one I never want to fail.
When I was a kid, my family moved around. In some schools I attended, we had to say the “Pledge of Allegiance.” In others, we didn’t. Lately I’ve been turning the pledge over in my mind. The more I think about it, the stranger it gets—both as a thing to say and as a thing that has meant different things over time.
The pledge starts with “I” and ends with “for all.” It’s overfull and choppy, moving from the individual to the nation and then, mysteriously, far beyond—”for all.” In my head, I only ever hear the pledge being said by a group of kids. Their voices are a little out of sync. They don’t fully understand what they’re saying. And they don’t quite believe it.
If, every morning, you were going to pledge allegiance to something or someone, what loyalty would you name? Who are your people? Who do you want your people to be and not be? And how much of who you are is bound up with who they are?
Among our national stories, the story of indivisibility most stretches the bounds of belief. Does there exist an indivisible national “we”? Can any of us see ourselves as part of such a far-flung, varied, and divided group? It’s easy to imagine people shaking their heads.
But there’s another national story that may be even more unbelievable: the story of the individual, free from all groups. That story has deep purchase. It feels as close as anything we’ve got to our core national story.
But that particular story tilts pretty hard toward the beginning of the pledge—toward the “I” and the liberty. I wonder what it would take for us to move our national story further forward: not only toward liberty but also toward an expansive understanding of ourselves and our people, and toward justice, for all.
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Well, ironically, I am answering the "we" question during Black History month, another "we" in the pot of America( named after an Italian map maker) that is not a melting pot but a mixed salad tied to destroying many great people's land and existence, the "we" of First Nations, and then the new "we" that this nation of whites decided were they, but were in fact the "we" of enslaved people. Seems like a pretty exceptionalist attitude to ponder the rugged individualism that the myth of America is built upon on, on the backs of so many "we's" -- internment for Japanese Americans, the Old and New Jim Crow, the continual attack of undocumented people this "we" society calls "illegal aliens." I wonder if those Mexicans and Central Americans see themselves as the "they" in the "we the people" America, or should they believe what "we the white America" call them, "we the aliens?" I don't think so. Here, this is the "we" an African-American math teacher in Mississippi posted on her classroom door: "They stole scientists, doctors, architects, teachers, entrepreneurs, astronomers, fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, etc. and made them slaves." Jovan Bradshaw is a sixth grade math teacher at Magnolia Middle School, but she decided to teach her students something other than addition and multiplication this Black History Month. "It all started with this little boy in my class. We were talking and he said, ‘Slaves didn’t do much because they couldn’t read or write.’ He kinda caught me off guard,' Bradshaw said. “I said, ‘Baby, if I snatched you up and dropped you off in China or Germany or Africa even, you wouldn’t be able to read and write their language either. Does that make you useless or any less educated?’”
Paul Haeder | February 2019 | Otis