Truth, Individuality, and Interconnection: Finding Strength in American Identity

Table of Content


            One of the common arguments against oral history is that not only can it often not be verified, but also that memory is an elusive, untrustworthy ally in writing history. Indeed, the human memory is rife with shifts, hills, and valleys, and often something is not remembered the same by two people present at the time or event. It is my argument, and that of many oral historians, that not only is the memory more useful than previously thought, but also that oral history is important regardless of whether or not it is “truth.” Perhaps two different accounts of the same event reflect the “truth” for each person, subjected as it is to individual experiences. Surely when John Winthrop argued for the vast untouched beauty of America, he was reflecting his own truth, just as Chief Joseph reflected his own truth when he said that he “would fight no more forever.” It is when American history and culture includes only the former truth and not the latter, only the words of the victor and not those of the oppressed minority, that we lose the essence of what it means to be an American. Individuality has been an integral part of American identity.

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             Through studying multiple truths, multiple discourses, we can also find the interconnection that is always present, whether it fits into the dominant ideology of frontierism or not. When used appropriately, history and the study of our culture can be tools for bringing disenfranchised peoples to the table of politics, where they can make change happen on a national level. It can also be used as a way to observe our own society against the grain and to consider the intersections of history and truth. And an expanded definition of “truth” to accommodate the multiple truths of so many of our lives is what is needed to make our identities whole again; as individuals, as Americans, and as members of a host of other identities that intersect and interconnect.

Anthology of Quotes

As a mental artifact, the frontier has demonstrated an astonishing stickiness and persistence. It is virtually the flypaper of our mental world; it attaches itself to everything – healthful diets, space shuttles, civil-rights campaigns, heart transplants, industrial-product development, musical innovations. Packed full of nonsense and goofiness, jammed with nationalistic self-congratulation, the image of the frontier is nonetheless universally recognized and laden with positive associations.

-from “The Adventures of the Frontier in the Twentieth Century” by Patricia Nelson Limerick, page 25

            In her discussion of the inherent problems with using the term “frontier,” Limerick argues that the term cannot be used or considered without also taking into account the history of the use of the term and the social contexts surrounding it. In this quote, she acknowledges this fact as well as the larger reality that the word continues to have positive connotations for many people. This reality needs to be taken into account if our society is going to have any sort of honest discussion of our own colonizing history. It also prods social scientists and historians to not ignore this “truth” that many people hold, no matter how illogical it may seem.

These stories told about the frontier and the West have certainly not always been told with democratic intent, but they have sometimes had democratic consequences. Attempts to close them off, to claim them for certain groups, have failed. They have become democratic stories inhabited by diverse Americans and open to multiple retellings – but at a price. For to tell so many stories of this kind is to cut off the telling of other stories, other narratives, other imaginings.”

– from “Frederick Jackson Turner and Buffalo Bill” by Richard White page 42

            This quote aptly illustrates the danger that occurs when a place is over-mythologized, as has been the case in America in general and the American West specifically. Mythologizing a place effectively erases the actual people who inhabit the place. Still, as White points out, despite these attempts to control the stories of America, actual Americans have always stubbornly insisted on telling their own stories, leaving their own mark, as some of the other essays and quotes in this anthology will show. There remains work to be done, however, in continuing to search out additional narratives that do not fit our currently accepted stories and myths.

We know that you highly esteem the kind of learning taught in those colleges, and that the maintenance of our young men, while with you, would be very expensive to you. We are convinced, therefore, that you mean to do us good by your proposal, and we thank you heartily. But you who are wise must know that different nations have different conceptions of things; and you will therefore not take it amiss if our ideas of this kind education happen not to be the same with yours.

-from Great Speeches by Native Americans ed. by Bob Blaisdell page 15

            In response to an offer by the government of Virginia in 1744 to provide a college education for several young Iroquois men, the Iroquois council members declined the offer but made one of their own – to take several young Virginia men and teach them Iroquois ways. A clear-cut example of how something that appears empirically ‘true,’ such as what education entails, in fact differs widely among different cultures and times. The Iroquois council saw no use in “educating” their young men in white ways if it meant that they would not learn to hunt, to speak their own language, and to survive within their own culture. The Virginia government felt similarly, as they did not take the Iroquois up on their offer.

What, to the American slave, if your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days of the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy – a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.

-from Milestone Documents in American History vol. 2 ed. by Paul Finkelman page 669

            This quote from Frederick Douglass’ “Fourth of July” speech, is perhaps the most famous speech by the abolitionist. On July 5, 1852 the Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society of Rochester, New York, invited Douglass to be the keynote speaker for their Fourth of July celebration. The speech was later published and distributed in phamplet form. (Finkelman 657) Douglass provides a different truth for what was and still is a widely celebrated American holiday. His truth took into account his own history and racial background, and it is this truth that informed his speech. American identity needs all of these truths to form a coherent whole, and while Douglass’ speech may be difficult to read, I cannot view his truth as any less honest and “real” than that of the traditional story of the Fourth of July taught to schoolchildren today.

The heart of the question is whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities, whether we are going to treat our fellow Americans as we want to be treated. If an American, because his skin is dark, cannot eat lunch in a restaurant open to the public, if he cannot send his children to the best public school available, if he cannot vote for the public officials who will represent him, if, in short, he cannot enjoy the full and free life which all of us want, then who among us would be content to have the color of his skin changed and stand in his place? Who among us would then be content with the counsels of patience and delay?

-from Milestone Documents in American History vol. 4 ed. by Paul Finkelman page 1738

            John F. Kennedy’s ‘Civil Rights Address,’ delivered via radio and television, was the first time that an American president called on all Americans to recognize civil rights as a moral imperative. Given in 1963, the centennial year of the Emancipation Proclamation, the speech was also given nearly a year to the day before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, although Kennedy would not be alive to see the act signed into law. The urgency of his words speaks to the need to continue the important work of moving forward in civil rights and identifies this work as a vital part of American identity. While America was founded on the backs of slaves and began by slaughtering Native Americans, Kennedy pointed towards a new version of American identity, one based on a truer form of democracy. This ability to change and shape our identities is part of what constitutes American history.

For there to be a “national character” at all requires a dominant popular mythology. The imagery and rhetoric used by Mr. Bush and his handlers – “smoke ‘em out,” “dead or alive,” “bring it on,” cutting wood on his ranch, the swaggering walk – in playing the “cowboy” card, the Bush Administration has been tapping deep roots in the American psyche.

-from “Swaggering Savagery and the New Frontier” by Barry Stephenson page 13

            Stephenson, in this article, uses the popular conception of the frontier myth as informing the recent and current war on terror initiated by George W. Bush and his administration. The rhetoric and posturing of the Bush administration echoes earlier wars against Native Americans and other “savage” influences. This posture situates the war on terror as being a new frontier to be conquered (1). The continuing influence of an idea that many of us might consider old-fashioned is central to Stephenson’s thesis, and continues the more historical discussion begun in the essays in The Frontier in American Culture.

Equally important, by ending the federal government’s isolation of the American people from the rest of the world, we not only would be restoring the constitutional republic our ancestors bequeathed to us, Americans also would once again have the opportunity to lead the world to freedom, peace, prosperity, and harmony.

-from “Why They Hate Us” by Jacob Hornberger par. 28

            In a 2006 piece, Jacob Hornberger, the founder and president of the Future of Freedom Foundation, discussed the anger of much of the Muslim world towards America and the Western world. Hornberger advocates a complete dismantling of American overseas military power as part of a wider strategy for coming to terms with this anger. This quote illustrates what Hornberger believes to be the positive effects of this dismantling, as well as the larger point in this anthology and the work therein that truth is subjective. It also shows a vision that sounds remarkably similar to that espoused by John F. Kennedy in his civil rights speech.

The volume and velocity of migration, rather than the fabled climate, account for most of the unique features of the region’s cultural landscape. To understand these features, one needs a sociology of migration, or, more particularly, a sociology of the boom.

-from Southern California: Island on the Land by Carey McWilliams page 227

            In Carey McWilliams’ history of Southern California, originally published in 1946, he goes into detail about the various waves of migration to hit Southern California.  While he devotes some time to the climate of the region, he focuses on how different immigrant populations have influenced the development of Southern California. His “sociology of migration” describes the majority of other materials included in this anthology as well as his own. Through original documents, first-person narratives and oral history in addition to his own analysis, McWilliams sheds greater light on the history of a region. A “sociology of migration” could describe a sociology of the history of the Americas, and provides a lens through which to view our histories and identities.


            Each quote in this anthology spoke to me in a meaningful way. Some, like those of Carey McWilliams and Richard White, provided me with a clearer and more in-depth grasp of historical issues of the frontier and migration. Others, like the speech given by Iroquois council members to members of the Virginia government, made me laugh at loud, instantaneously putting an end to any preconceptions about the “simple” ways of Native Americans in their easy satire. Frederick Douglass’ 4th of July speech and Jacob Hornberger’s piece on Muslim anger reminded me how passionately people have argued against the exploitation of people and land on behalf of “democracy,” since Winthrop first set foot on North American soil.

            Above all the quotes illustrate the important of putting yourself in another’s shoes. This project got me excited about the possibilities of building bridges across identities, or participating in the formation of new American identities. I am looking forward to pushing against and shifting my alliances and identities. In search of the new frontier, which is really the old one, understood through the eyes of all of the people who saw the formation of it. In search of more wild places, different truths, and more of the tangled paradise of our world.

Review Evaluation

Great Speeches by Native Americans edited by Bob Blaisdell B-

            There is no doubt that many of the speeches included in this collection, including Powhatan’s “Why should you destroy us, who have provided you with food?” and Osceola’s “I love my home, and will not go from it,” are stirring and insightful. Others that are written much later are just as insightful, but often more heartbreaking than stirring. However, after reading through about half of the collection, I found that many of the same themes were being repeated. While the educational value in general is high, I found that for my own learning speeches are not as excellent of a tool as are letters, first-person narratives, and oral history. As far as poignant rallying cries go, these speeches are some of the best, but in terms of providing additional contextualization for the rest of the materials covered in class, I found this collection lacking.

On Paradise Drive by David Brooks C-

            While he is ostensibly conducting an anthropological survey of suburbs, exurbs, and sprawl culture, Brooks’ tone is one of condescension and judgment. Even the starting point of the book, that these types of living environment present “a new way of living,” and that he, as an intrinsic outsider to such a middlebrow way of existence, is the perfect observer of these environments, is shockingly snobby and patronizing. It is useful to compare this book with speeches on the frontier given a century ago. Then, too, it appeared that this was the dawn of a new epoch that never before in history had happened. I found Brook’s book more useful as an example of myopic American exceptionalism.

Letters to a Nation edited by Andrew Carroll A

            In Letters to a Nation, Andrew Carroll chose over 200 examples of letters written by people both famous and not, all of which deserve a place in history books. It is one thing to read, as a young person today, about the draft during the Vietnam War. It is quite another to read an actual draft letter, in this case addressed to Bill Clinton, and his letter of deferment. Letters, even somewhat public letters such as those written by government officials are, by their very nature, private. Reading letters that were both intended for public dissemination and those intended for only their recipient felt intrusive at times, but their instructive and educational value far exceeded those feelings. Reading  these letters provides a sense of immediacy for events long since past.

Why Freedom Matters edited by Daniel Katz A-

            This is a thoroughly enjoyable and inspirational book. Compared to the other materials covered in this anthology, I have to admit I did not learn as much from reading it as I did from reading some of the other books. However, in terms of helpfulness, this was by far the most helpful book in terms of the breadth and depth of sources covered as well as the inspiration it provided to continue slogging through a more empirically educational book such as Southern California: Island on the Land. The inclusion of a poem like Langston Hughes “Let America Be America Again” illustrates the range of realities that any study of American history is forced to deal with. The title of this book, Why Freedom Matters, describes what it contains perfectly; the poems, essays, speeches, songs, and great minds that have been the legacy of American colonization and expansion.

The Frontier in American Culture by Patricia Nelson Limerick and Richard White B

            While dense, the history of Frederick Jackson Turner and Buffalo Bill was useful in illuminating how the frontier was envisioned by Americans at the turn of the century. The essay by Patricia Nelson Limerick was helpful in a different way, as it demanded that I rethink my assumptions about the word ‘frontier’ and what it means. In reading other texts, I would often find myself coming back to her arguments about the frontier, which expanded my ability to learn from and analyze those texts. The book as a whole was useful, although Limerick’s more abstract work was more helpful in my learning process.

Southern California: Island on the Land by Carey McWillliams B-

            In light of the array of books, essays, and speeches we have covered, Southern California was one of the least helpful in contextualizing the other materials and providing new insight into western expansion, frontier mythology, and the interconnections of American identity. It was refreshing to read a book written over fifty years ago that focused on the history of both prominent and “everyday” people. It may be a credit to McWilliams that to a contemporary reader, who not only has access to popular books like A People’s History of the United States, but also to anthologies like Half and Half and Letters of a Nation, this way of writing history is nothing special. There were moments when McWilliams seemed to capture an essential part of Californian identity – such as when he refers to it as the “Land of Upside Down” – but at other times got so bogged down in specifics that it was difficult to fully pay attention.

Half and Half: Writers on Growing up Biracial and Bicultural edited by Claudine O’Hearn B+

            It is important for white-identified and “half” white people to write about race. As evidenced by the most recent Democratic Presidential primary, where Hilary Clinton was asked to discuss gender and Barack Obama asked to discuss race, it is assumed that “white” is not a racial category, and that white people should just leave such discussions to people of color. This effectively lets white people off the hook in examining their own racism and their place in racist culture, and also denies the very complexity that the authors represented in Half and Half explore. In an essay about learning to honor all parts of her heritage in her writing, Julia Alvarez notes that “A story could allow for the competing claims of different parts of ourselves and where we came from” (147)This book was most helpful in re-centering my thoughts when I was tempted to throw up my hands and say that racial and cultural analysis was just too hard, because through first-person narrative it acknowledged what is to be gained when we take the trouble to critically examine ourselves.

Twilight: Los Angles, 1992 by Anna Deveare Smith A-

            This play, created using the actual words of people involved and affected by the Los Angeles riots of 1992, effectively takes the reader into that time and place. The story of Latasha Harlins as told through multiple eyes was especially useful in recognizing that even in tragedy (or perhaps especially in tragedy) there are times when people view the same event differently, not because they are lying or evil but because their own lifetime of experiences necessarily come to bear on what they saw. Taken in context of our readings on Native Americans and frontier mythology, this lesson could not have been more helpful. Although this was a play, its documentary nature and use of verbatim testimony gave it an immediacy that earlier speeches and texts sometimes lacked.

            Why Freedom Matters contributed the most to my understanding of American history, identity, and “American character.” That being said, it is difficult to choose one piece as having had the greatest contribution, as I found that the texts spoke to each other and complemented each other. I chose Freedom because it provided me with the broadest understanding of why, despite the horrors that have been committed in the name of America, we all must continue to fight for an America that we believe in. Many of the contributions also gave me a greater appreciation for those who have come before and fought for their own rights and, by extension, my own.

Works Cited

Blaisdell, Bob. Great Speeches by Native Americans. USA: Dover Publications, 2000. Print.

Brooks, David. On Paradise Drive. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004. Print.

Caroll, Andrew, ed. Letters to a Nation. Portland, OR: Broadway Books, 1999. Print.

Finkelman, Paul. Milestone Documents in American History Volumes 1-4. Texas: Schlager          Group, 2008. Print.

Hornberger, Jacob. “Why They Hate Us.” The Future of Freedom Foundation. 13 February       2006. Web. April 30 2010. <>.

Katz, Daniel, ed. Why Freedom Matters. New York : Workman Publishing Company, 2003.      Print.

Limerick, Patricia Nelson and Richard White. The Frontier in American Culture. Berkeley, CA:             University of California Press, 1994. Print.

McWilliams, Carey. Southern California: Island on the Land. Salt Lake City, UT: Peregrine       Smith, 2009. Print.

O’Hearn, Claudine. Half and Half: Writers on Growing up Biracial and Bicultural. New York: Pantheon, 1998. Print.

Smith, Anne Devears. Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992. New York: Dramatist’s Play Service: 2003.             Print.

Stephenson, Barry. “Swaggering Savagery and the New Frontier.” Journal of Religion and        Culture 16.2 (2007): 1-30. Print.


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