The Value of My American Identity
As a Peace Corps Volunteer of color, I experience unique challenges during my service. One such challenge is when host country nationals question my nationality as American. My skin is not white; therefore, I don’t fit their stereotype of what a “typical” American looks like.
Initially these encounters were frustrating, but as time has passed, I’ve found ways to cope as I’m sure many of us have. Coping strategies are important, but so is reflecting on why the title of “American” holds so much value, especially for Black Peace Corps Volunteers.
That being said, let’s turn the clock back to February 1st, 1901, the day Langston Hughes was born. Hughes was born in Missouri but spent the majority of his childhood moving around. He finally settled in Cleveland, OH where he found his love for poetry. Hughes held many titles through-out his life including poet, activist, playwright, novelist, and more. However, he’s most recognized for the body of poetry he contributed during the Harlem Renaissance. Following the Great Migration in the early 20th century, “a spiritual coming of age” came about within the Black community. This awakening is most commonly referred to as the Harlem Renaissance. Black intellectualism and expressionism were at an all-time high, seeping into popular culture via poems, novels, music (specifically Jazz), dance, art and more. Most noted were the literary works produced during the time that fostered greater responses to the racial inequality the country was facing.
The work of Hughes was exemplary because we wrote about the experiences of Black Americans, the true essence of our culture, without feeling the need to sugar coat the impacts of antiblack racism. In doing so, he also beautifully illustrated the resilience of Black people despite the many hardships they encountered.
In my opinion, one of the most intriguing topics Hughes chose to write about was his stance on Black American patriotism. He believed it was important for Black people to take pride in identifying as American. Not because America was anywhere near perfect, but because he believed part of being patriotic meant holding America accountable for its injustice. He used his writing to highlight the discrepancy between how Black and White Americans were being treated. More importantly he shone a light on how the mistreatment of Black Americans was a direct contradiction of the values America claimed to be founded on. He challenged all Americans to put in the necessary work to make sure that America was structured in a way the supported the rights of all people. Claiming the title of American, as a Black person, was about claiming our right to humane treatment.
One popular example of the way he used his work to express his social and political views, was through the poem “I, Too” written in 1925.
By Langston Hughes
I, too, sing America.
I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.
I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—
I, too, am America.
In this poem, Hughes is staking his claim to his American identity. He illustrates the mistreatment of Black Americans at the time, specifically in regard to racial segregation. However, by the end of the poem, he expresses confidently that change is inevitable. The country will eventually be forced to recognize the value of Black Americans. He strongly believed that the collective work of Black artists and activists, would trigger social and political change. Langston Hughes and many others participating in the Harlem Renaissance helped pave the way for the Civil Rights Movement.
All this to say that next time you hear Black PCVs venting about their nationality being mislabeled, I hope you remember Langston Hughes. I hope you are reminded that being called American is more than just a title, but rather a constant proclamation of our humanity. It is an identity that many Black Americans, including myself, cling to and carry with pride. I’m grateful for the work of Langston Hughes and the many other Black Historical figures that dedicated their lives to creating a space for all people to be fully recognized and accepted. I’m grateful to identify as American. Perhaps I’m most grateful for my opportunity to share about the diverse cultural history in America as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Rwanda. Though conversations about my nationality were challenging at first, I’ve learned to turn these conversations into teachable moments.
During this next month, I challenge you to learn more about other Black historical figures who have helped push America toward progress in regard to race, gender, class, and sexuality.