In today’s America, who is or is not an American?

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As a newspaperman, I view most attempts to “redefine America” through skeptical eyes.  Every such attempt appears to be based on hidden agendas driven by a lust for power.

As a mostly-white American with some Native American mixed into the DNA, I see myself as a product of mixed environments: Born in Tampa, Fla.,I spent my first five years of life in nearby Gibsonton, where carnival workers (carnies) spent their winters, then my mother and I transplanted to rural Floyd, Va, for three years after my father died in an industrial accident.

I was 8 when my mother remarried a divorced man with three kids who lived in Farmville, Va. — a larger town in tobacco-dominated Prince Edward County.  I had a bicycle and paper route, played Little League baseball and joined the Boy Scouts.  I was a child of the 50s who rode his bike into town on Saturday mornings to watch cartoons and a matinee feature at the local theater, had milkshakes at the local drug store luncheon counter and listened to baseball games on my transistor radio.

Farmville and Prince Edward County had a dark side as well, a racist school board and supervisors who refused to integrate the public school system and closed it down, replacing it with a private school for whites only.  Suddenly, I was going to classes in church basements, American Legion halls, and other spots while African-American kids had no schools.

Even at age 10, I thought that was wrong.  Maybe it was the time in Gibsonton, where I played with the kids of carnival workers of different ethnic backgrounds.   It wasn’t right.  I had a budding interest in photography and crawled on my belly through woods to sneak up on Ku Klux Klan meeting near Farmville and shot photos with my YaschicaMet Twin-Lens reflex camera.

I took my film to the Farmville Herald, a twice-a-week paper and asked then Editor Ben Bowers to have them develop the film and take a look at an essay about being a kid who didn’t agree with the racism I saw in the area.  He liked the photos and the essay, but the local owners of the paper did not so he shopped the story to the Richmond News-Leader and other papers.  Some published the photos and the story,

A Klan Rally

At age 10, I was a published reporter and photographer and, from that day, I wanted to be a newspaperman who would report on what America was and what it should be.

That desire became a career when Pete Hallman, owner of The Floyd Press when we returned to live in the county in 1961, hired me as a full[time reporter and photographer while still in high school.

Today, 61 years later, I’m still trying to report on what American is or is not and what it should or should not be.

I’m not alone.  At The New York Times, Will Wilkerson, writes:

The question of who “we” are as “a people” is the central question on which we’re polarized. High-minded calls to reunite under the flag therefore tend to take a side and amount to little more than a demand for the other side’s unconditional surrender. “Agree with me, and then we won’t disagree” is more a threat than an argument.

The way the nationalist sees it, liberals always throw the first punch by “changing things.” When members of the “Great American Middle” (to use the artfully coded phrase of Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri to refer to nonurban whites) lash out in response to the provocations of progressive social change, they see themselves as patriots defending their America from internal attack.

In a nation defined by political stereotyping, I should be one of those “nationalists.”  I’m white, a product of mostly rural America and a college dropout — a stereotyped supporter of the nationalism defined today by many conservative supporters of Donald Trump.

But I’m not.  I fled Floyd County after high school graduation, working first as a reporter and photographer at The Roanoke Times, where I again covered meetings of the Klan and wrote about racial strife. I then moved to the St. Louis metro area as a reporter, photographer and columnist for The Telegraph in Alton, IL, on the metro-east side of the city, across the Mississippi River.

A column written in the rough and tumble days of The Alton Telegraph.

Alton is a town with a complicated history surrounding the Civil War.  Even though it was the Land of Lincoln and part of the Union, a pro-slavery mob attacked the local newspaper before the war and killed the editor and publisher, Elijah Lovejoy, honored in a statue atop a hill in the city as a martyr to Freedom of the Press.

Alton was also the birthplace of James Earl Ray, who may or may not have killed Dr. Martin Luther King in Memphis, Tenn. in 1968,  A hellhole housed Confederate prisoners of war in Alton.  Some of those stones are now found in many older homes in the city, including the townhouse where wife Amy and I lived.

I wrote often about the racism that still existed in Alton. Simmering racism still thrived in the area.  I tracked down the house where James Earl Ray was born and found it now owned by an African-American family.  When I wrote about that irony, someone burned it down.

After 12 years in Alton, Amy and I moved to the National Capital Region of Washington, DC — an even larger metro area.  We lived in Arlington County for 23 years.  It provided a pleasant mixture of cultures:  “Little Saigon,” the area of Vietnamese restaurants, grocery stores, and shops owned by those who fled Vietnam after the North took control of their homeland; and a thriving Lebanese community that Amy enjoyed because she is Lebanese-Irish.

Staff members at various consulates lived in our high-condo.  We got to know several of them and learned about their homelands and cultures.  Muslims invited us to their mosques and into their homes.  So did Buddhists and Jews and others who came to America seeking diversity and acceptance.

In many ways, living in Arlington and working out of the nation’s capital let us enjoy a rich, culturally-mixed environment.

The terrorist attacks of 9/11 changed some of that on Sept. 1, 2001.  We saw hate slogans sprayed on mosques, broken windows at a Lebanese grocery and shouts of “America First!” at protests.

It bothered us when people we know began talking “hate speak” about those of differing nationalities, particularly those of Arab descent.   I drove to work each morning and passed an armored personnel carrier with a 50-cal machine gun manned by a Marine on the George Washington Parkway by the Pentagon.

One of my favorite photos: Shot on Sept. 15, 2011 — four days after 9/11 in Falls Church, Va.

Washington changed.  So did our attitudes about making the area our home.  When we decided to move to our new home in Floyd, Va. in 2004, we had hope when we saw Oddfellas owned and operated by a mixed-race couple, an African-American chief deputy sheriff, a growing gay community and those who practiced Quaker, Catholic, Buddhism, Muslim and other religions that weren’t visible in the county when I left in 1965.

But we also still found people using the “N-word” and sporting the Confederal battle flag.  When Barack Obama won the presidency, we saw the lunacies of a tea party rise from some toxic swamp.  John McCain carried the county in 2008.  So did Mitt Romney in 2012. Donald Trump won the presidential count in Floyd County in 2016 and probably will in 2020

Such traces of bigotry hang on.

Because I have written about the racism of Donald Trump, George Allen, and other politicos, some Floyd Countians see me as a Democrat.  During a sabbatical from journalism in the 1980s, I worked for three Republican members of Congress and as a political operative for the national party.

I’m not.  I’ve never registered as a member of any political party.  I’ve never contributed to any candidate of any party or for any office.

Being a Republican does not make one an American.  Neither does being a Democrat.  Americans are individuals from a variety of ethnic and racial origins, unique in their views, their goals, and their pursuits.  Instead of being told to “go back home,” we should recognize that all of us are home.

Writes Wilkerson:

But what, today, do Americans call “home”? The next logical step would be to observe that the contemporary sum of rooted, lovable American elements includes the black culture of Compton, the Mexican culture of Albuquerque, the Indian culture of suburban Houston, the Chinese culture of San Francisco, the Orthodox Jewish culture of Brooklyn, the Cuban culture of Miami and the “woke” progressive culture of the college town archipelago, as well as the conservative culture of the white small town.

To reject pluralism and liberalizing progress is to reject the United States of America as it is, to heap contempt upon American heroes who shed blood and tears fighting for the liberty and equality of their compatriots. The nationalist’s nostalgic whitewashed fantasy vision of American national identity cannot be restored, because it never existed. What they seek to impose is fundamentally hostile to a nation forged in the defining American struggle for equal freedom, and we become who we are as we struggle against them.

Whether couched in vulgarities or professorial prose, reactionary nationalism is seditious, anti-patriotic loathing of America hiding behind a flag — our flag. We won’t allow it, because we know how to build a nation. We know how the American story goes: We fight; we take it back.

I’m proud to be an American.  I’m not proud of the nation’s current president, Congress or leadership of either political party.

That’s my right, as a voter, a newspaperman, and an American.

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