20 Lessons on How to Be American

First comes gratitude. Your parents grew up in a dictatorship, but you are born free. Consider yourself lucky that you are not the one being bombed. Consider yourself lucky that the grocery stores are full of food, even if only some people can afford it. Consider yourself lucky that you can go to school for free. It’s the best education, the greatest country, in the world.

The Pledge of Allegiance is a daily vitamin dose, a morning liturgy. Hand over heart, liberty and justice for all. Then comes the singing: My Country ‘Tis of Thee, America the Beautiful, God Bless America, This Land is Your Land. You prefer the last one; it’s the most upbeat.

The Founding Fathers inseminated us with freedom. At the first Thanksgiving, Pilgrims and Indians exchanged food, like a church potluck.

It is right and good to believe in a higher power, to be led by an authority that knows best. The Founding Fathers. Our Father Who Art in Heaven. Before you sleep, kneel at the foot of your bed and pray. Please don’t let her punch me after school. Please don’t let him call me a chink. In the confession booth, Father Vincent doles out your prescription: Five Our Fathers, three Hail Marys. Throw in a Glory Be to be safe. You like the quick coda, a brisk arpeggio. ForeverandeverAmen.

It is Un-American to say anything negative about being American. This is the definition of freedom.

The following things are also Un-American:

– Being unhappy
– Burning the flag
– Asking too many questions
– Speaking in a language that isn’t English
– Not loving dogs
– Atheism
– Ingratitude

The assignment is a grade-wide contest that comes with a monetary prize: What Memorial Day Means to Me. Your response is three pages on conscientious objectors and the importance of making sure there are no more wars. The winner is a girl who writes three paragraphs about the importance of loving your country, no matter what. You get a C.

America does the right thing. America has your best interests at heart. If America kills you, it is your fault.

Q. Hello, how are you?
A. I am fine!

Sunshine and optimism, a Disney grin masking blood. Yank yourself up by your bootstraps. Simmer the melting pot. God, I never read the news, it’s too depressing.

America is the exception. Bad things happen in Other Countries. Consider yourself lucky to live in a postracial society with no class or caste. In Other Countries women must cover their bodies, but America loves women, especially when they’re thin, blonde, and in bikinis.

The Pledge again, in high school. This time, refuse to say it. The teacher calls you a Communist. A white girl shouts, “If you hate America so much, why don’t you go back to where you came from?” You think: Queens?

The Founding Fathers owned slaves.

You are the exception. You are bad at math and good at art and writing. You’re funny and not too angry, not like the rest of them, angry for no reason. I feel safe with you.


In a dictatorship it is important to keep quiet because it can be the difference between life and death.

Spare me your outrage, you think. Spare me your surprise. But you are outraged; you are surprised. Is this what patriotism is, this belated, complicated love? Not blind love, not unconditional—but a new, twisting fear, an unexpected grief.

Remember all the times you were afraid to speak.

Imagine no longer being able to speak.

Reject the script. Write a new future and write it again.

The Violence Inherent

We are at a cultural moment where Native videographers are able to exercise self­-determination and shoot back against the historicizing gaze of anthropology.