America’s Dream: We Contain Multitudes

Norman Rockwell, "Spirit of America"

Norman Rockwell, “Spirit of America”


Today is a red-letter day in our family as my Trinidadian daughter-in-law gets sworn in as an American citizen. Candice Wilson came to this country many years ago to study at Middlebury College, and she received her PhD in Film Studies from the University of Pittsburgh last year. She begins a tenure-track position at the University of North Georgia in August.

To welcome Candice to her new country, I share a section of Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself, that most American of poems. Whitman, of course, celebrates the rich tapestry of America to which Candice will be contributing. “Of every hue and caste am I, of every rank and religion,” he writes.

To be sure, Candice is not a stranger to multi-hued cultures as Trinidad too contains many nationalities and ethnicities. Candice herself, I believe, is a mixture of Carib, French and Spanish Creole, and African. The following excerpt is from Section 16:

I am of old and young, of the foolish as much as the wise, 
Regardless of others, ever regardful of others, 
Maternal as well as paternal, a child as well as a man, 
Stuff’d with the stuff that is coarse and stuff’d with the stuff that is fine, 
One of the Nation of many nations, the smallest the same and the largest the same, 
A Southerner soon as a Northerner, a planter nonchalant and hospitable down by the Oconee I live, 
A Yankee bound my own way ready for trade, my joints the limberest joints on earth and the sternest joints on earth, 
A Kentuckian walking the vale of the Elkhorn in my deer-skin leggings, a Louisianian or Georgian, 
A boatman over lakes or bays or along coasts, a Hoosier, Badger, Buckeye; 
At home on Kanadian snow-shoes or up in the bush, or with fishermen off Newfoundland, 
At home in the fleet of ice-boats, sailing with the rest and tacking, 
At home on the hills of Vermont or in the woods of Maine, or the Texan ranch, 
Comrade of Californians, comrade of free North-Westerners, (loving their big proportions,) 
Comrade of raftsmen and coalmen, comrade of all who shake hands and welcome to drink and meat, 
A learner with the simplest, a teacher of the thoughtfullest, 
A novice beginning yet experient of myriads of seasons, 
Of every hue and caste am I, of every rank and religion, 
A farmer, mechanic, artist, gentleman, sailor, quaker, 
Prisoner, fancy-man, rowdy, lawyer, physician, priest. 

I resist any thing better than my own diversity, 
Breathe the air but leave plenty after me, 
And am not stuck up, and am in my place. 

Unfortunately, there are many out there who are resisting American diversity. Here’s hoping that we can all learn to be as inclusive as Whitman. If you knew my smart, kind, and effervescent daughter-in-law, you would open your arms to her with Whitmanesque generosity.

Further thoughts:

Candice becomes a citizen at a challenging time with white ethnocentrism on the rise. A recent survey of Trump supporters discovered the following:

  •  77 percent say it bothers them to come into contact with people who speak little or no English.
  •  81 percent say discrimination against whites is as big a problem as discrimination against minorities.
  •  77 percent say discrimination against Christians in the U.S. is a major problem.
  •  83 percent say the American way of life needs to be protected against foreign influences.
  •  83 percent say the values of Islam are at odds with America’s values and way of life.
  •  80 percent say immigrants constitute a burden on American society. 
  •  68 percent say the country has changed mostly for the worse since the 1950s.
  • 72 percent say we need a leader who is willing to break some rules to set things right. 

Candice and Toby, in other words, will have to fight to protect their children from the forces of white reaction. The good news is that Candice gets to vote in the upcoming election.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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