Fifty Nifty, United States…


Do you know that song? Composed by none other than Ray Charles. The other Ray Charles. It goes like this: “Fifty, Nifty, United States from Thirteen Original Colonies…” Imagine singing it to the key of C. Or something. Anyway, a new project has been launched. It seems to only highlight a trend out there in ether.

And I thought it was just me. It seems that photographers, journalists and writers, television networks are all asking the question: What is the character of America?

Vanity Fair in 2004 had an essay contest soliciting a similar query. It challenged entrants to “explain the character of the American people to the world.” I entered that contest, and sadly, I did not win. The exercise did, however, help me. I’m still asking myself that question. I’m not sure I’ll ever settle on answer. Here’s a clip of my essay response:

We are paradox. Let us begin with that as meditation.
We are hopeful. We are heartbreaking. We defend. We punish. We are arrogant and humble. We are naïve and wise.
Then, there are the photographs.
We are barbarians and humanitarians. We destroy. We rebuild. We hate. We love. We supported and objected the war.
We were born under the sign of Cancer. It is a patriotic sign. Home. Family. Nation. We are collection of people searching for place to call home. Some came by boat, plane, train, car, bus. Some even walked. Home fabricated, stolen, and replaced.
To be an American means to constantly discover and rediscover whom you really are…

2004 was an interesting time to ask the question, as it was in 2003, when the Whitney Museum exhibited work from international artists for the American Effect show. And it still is an interesting time to ask the question. Our nation is maturing and I’m not just talking about the general population. The meaning of being American is maturing. And America isn’t all one color. And we can’t pat ourselves on the back and say we’re post-racial, post-gay, post-feminist. We’re still trying to figure out what that looks like and how to live it.

So I hope we all continue to search for answers about who we are now and who we hope to become. I’ll be bringing this track along, a perfectly crafted short story and anthem, for our long journey ahead.

photo: “Girl with dollar bill” © Larry Schwarm

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