President Trump’s tirade against four minority congresswomen prompts the question: Whom does he consider to be American?
By Ibram X. Kendi
I live in envy. I envy the people who know their nationality. All the people whose nationality has never been a question in their mind.
I can imagine the woman staring at her reflection in the Volta River who knows she’s Ghanaian, like her ancestors who liberated their people in 1957 and chose the mighty pre-colonial Ghana as the name of their new nation.
I can imagine the woman flying into Frankfurt who knows she’s German, who knows she’s arriving back home. I can imagine the man working on his antique car outside his home in Biloxi, forehead covered by the prized blood-red baseball cap he purchased at a rally back in November, a man who has never been told, “Go back to your country!” If somehow someone did tell him, it would confuse him as much as it would the Ghanaian or German woman. It would be like someone driving by his house and shouting at him, “Go back to your home!”
That he is at home, that he is in his country, is as much a fact of his existence as the tool clenched in his hand, as the sunrays shooting past the Mississippi trees hovering above his sweaty hat and its four beaming white words.
Nothing is more certain to him than that he is an American—and that I am not. My living here, being born here, and being a citizen here—none of those fine details matter. To him, to millions like him, to their white-nationalist father in the White House, I am not an American. They want me to prove, like all the Barack Obamas, that I’m really an American.
This blend of nativism, racism, and nationalism is central to Trumpism, to their worldview. They view me as, they disregard me as, an illegal alien, like those four progressive congresswomen of color. I am tolerated until I am not. I can dine on American soil until I demand a role in remaking the menu that is killing me, like those four progressive congresswomen of color.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has told Representatives Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Ayanna S. Pressley of Massachusetts, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York to get in line to be a Democrat, in the way I’m told by moderates away from Capitol Hill to get in line to be an American. I hear the moderate message of compliance, of assimilation, of being happy just dining. And I hear the message from the man with the blood-red hat defending the moderate and giving me an ultimatum.
“So interesting to see ‘Progressive’ Democrat Congresswomen, who originally came from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe, the worst, most corrupt and inept anywhere in the world (if they even have a functioning government at all), now loudly and viciously telling the people of the United States, the greatest and most powerful Nation on earth, how our government is to be run,” Donald Trump tweeted Sunday. “Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came. Then come back and show us how it is done. These places need your help badly, you can’t leave fast enough.”
But Pelosi and her moderate lieutenants do not desire this type of defense, this white-nationalist brand of American exceptionalism. They quickly and rightly stood up for the Americanness of these four women. “When @realDonaldTrump tells four American Congresswomen to go back to their countries,” Pelosi tweeted, “he affirms his plan to ‘Make America Great Again’ has always been about making America white again.” They quickly and rightly classified Trump’s MAGA attack as “a racist tweet from a racist president,” as the assistant speaker of the House, Ben Ray Luján, tweeted.
But their defenses and affirmations of my Americanness—that my black, Puerto Rican, Somalian, and Palestinian sisters are indeed Americans—did little to quiet the question screaming in my soul for an answer. And I suspect in the souls of millions more.
I can’t stop the screams. Am I an American? It is a question I have never been able to answer.
I can’t stop the shouts: “Go back to your country!” It is a statement I have never been able to answer.
Is this my country? Am I an American?
Ocasio-Cortez—like Trump, like me—was born in New York City. Tlaib was born in Detroit, and Pressley in Cincinnati. Omar’s family immigrated to the U.S. from Somalia when she was a child. They are all U.S. citizens, like me.
“WE are what democracy looks like,” Pressley tweeted. “And we’re not going anywhere.”
But they are not white like the Slovene-born Melania Trump. Is an American essentially white? I do not know. I do not know if I’m still three-fifths of an American, as my ancestors were written into the U.S. Constitution. Or fully American. Or not American at all.
What I do know is that historically, people like me have only truly been all-American—if all-American is not constantly being told to “go back to your country” or “act like an American”—when we did not resist enslavement on a plantation, or in poverty, or in a prison with or without bars shackling our human potential and cultural flowering. Perhaps we were Americans when we did not resist our bodies being traded, our wombs being assaulted, and our bent backs and our hands being bloodied picking and cleaning and manufacturing white America’s wealth.
Perhaps we were Americans when we did not resist how the self-identified white allies were trying to civilize us, telling us to slow down, telling us our anti-racist demands were impractical or impossible, instructing us how to get free. We were rarely told to go back to our country when we did kneel, when we did not kneel, when we did as told by the slaveholder and the abolitionist, by the segregator and racial reformer, by the American mentor telling us to pull up or pull down our pants.
Am I an American only when I act like a slave?
What Trump told those four congresswomen is hardly unorthodox for a U.S. president if we extend recent memory backwards. In 1787, the year the U.S. Constitution was drafted, was also the year that Thomas Jefferson published his influential Notes on the State of Virginia. Enslaved Africans should be emancipated, civilized, and “colonized to such place as the circumstances of the time should render most proper,” he wrote.
Colonization emerged as the most popular solvent of the race problem before the Civil War, advocated by nearly every president from Jefferson to Abraham Lincoln. Slaveholders increasingly desired to rid the nation of the emancipated Negro. And moderate Americans increasingly advocated gradual emancipation and colonization, telling the anti-racists that immediate emancipation was impractical and impossible in the way that anti-racists are told immediate equality is impractical and impossible today.
At the founding of the American Colonization Society in 1816, Representative Henry Clay of Kentucky, the future presidential candidate and “Great Compromiser,” gave voice to what we now call Trumpism, the savaging of people of color and the countries of people of color to hold up white Americanness.
“Can there be a nobler cause that that which, whilst it proposes to rid our country of a useless and pernicious, if not dangerous portion of its population, contemplates the spreading of the arts of civilized life, and the possible redemption from ignorance and barbarism of a benighted quarter of the globe!”
The moderate strategized then, as the moderate still do now, based on what was required to soothe white sensibilities. As the clergyman Robert Finley wrote in Thoughts on the Colonization of Free Blacks in 1816, through colonization, “the evil of slavery will be diminished and in a way so gradual as to prepare the whites for the happy and progressive change.”
Some black people advocated back-to-Africa campaigns or relocated there, convinced American racism was permanent, convinced they could create a better life for themselves alongside their African kin. But many, perhaps most, black people resisted colonization schemes from their beginning. This is “the land of our nativity,” thousands of black Philadelphians resolved in 1817. Still colonization recycled through time, on the basis that the black race could never “be placed on an equality with the white race,” as Lincoln lectured a delegation of black men on August 14, 1862. The abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison corrected Lincoln: “It is not their color, but their being free, that makes their presence here intolerable.”
President Andrew Johnson did everything he could to keep us slaves. His successor, Ulysses S. Grant, tired of alienating racist Americans from the Republican Party every time he sent federal troops to defend our right to live, vote, thrive, and hold political office from Ku Klux Klansmen led by men such as Nathan Bedford Forrest, whom Tennessee honored with his own day on Saturday.
In the so-called Compromise of 1877, northerners retained the White House in exchange for allowing racist southerners to treat us like anything but Americans over the next century. Or were we Americans all along, despite what the lynchings and pogroms did to our bodies, and what Jim Crow did to our political economy? Or did we become Americans through court rulings and congressional acts in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s? Or were we still not Americans in 1968, when the Kerner Commission’s study of America’s racial landscape concluded, “Our nation is moving towards two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.”
Were the two societies—instead of black and white—the American society of legal patriots and the un-American society of illegal aliens? Did the Latinx, Muslim, Asian, and black immigrants who arrived in the United States since the 1960s join the people of color and anti-racist whites in the un-American society? Have people of color been allowed to enter American society and become Americans when they submitted to racist power and policy and inequality and injustice—when they became “my African American”? Have rebellious “un-Americans” of color been demonized as criminals and deported back to our countries or to more and more prisons like Angola in Louisiana?
Am I an American?
Blood-red-hatted segregationists say no, never, unless we submit to slavery. Assimilationists say we can be Americans if we stop speaking Spanish, stop wearing hijabs, cut our long hair, stop acting out against them—if we follow their gradual lead.
Anti-racist blacks have divided over this question as fiercely as segregationists and assimilationists. I am an American, and because I’m an American, I deserve to be free. I am not an American, because if I were an American, I’d be free.
“I, too, am America,” Langston Hughes wrote in perhaps his most famous poem, first published in 1926.
“I’m not a Republican, nor a Democrat, nor an American—and got sense enough to know it,” Malcolm X orated at a Detroit church on April 12, 1964.
Both ring true to me. I do not know whether I’m an American. But I do know it is up to me to answer this question based on how I define American, based on how I am treated by America. I don’t care whether or not anyone thinks I am an American. I am not about persuading anyone to see how American I am. I do not write stories that show white people all the ways people of color contributed to America. I will not battle with anyone over who is an American. There is a greater battle for America.
Maybe that is the point. Maybe I had the question wrong all along. Maybe I should not live in envy; I should live in struggle. Maybe I should have been asking, “Who controls America?” instead of “Am I an American?” Because who controls America determines who is an American.
Ibram X. Kendi is the Director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University