The question asked this week by Collier’s Weekly, “Who Are Americans?” brings up some unpleasant memories of a peculiar situation. On the average application blank, when a Negro is asked “nationality?” if he puts “American” for an answer, the interrogator usually looks hurt and says gently that he should have put “Negro”. Some amusing and some heart-breaking incidents have grown from this.
Elias Lieberman, whose poem, “I Am An American,” is used in the Lewis and Roland Eighth Year Silent Reader, finds material in the melting pot, for his American, and in the Puritan stock of the Mayflower. He ignores the Indian and forgets the Negro. So children’s plastic minds are impressed that the only Americans are the whites of native stock, or the European emigrants.
How would it do to add a verse to the poem that the Negro child might recite?
i am an american!
My forefathers were brought to this country three hundred years ago;
They hewed the forests, tilled the fields, made the roads;
They built the new country and helped it grow.
Then they took weapons and defended her against her enemies;
Yea, against Indians and French and English,
And helped make it a vast Republic whose flag sweeps the seas.
When Civil War threatened to rive it apart,
They fought to keep it one free nation;
And shed their blood on Flanders Field for an ideal of Democracy.
My fathers and mothers toiled to make an economic foundation for me.
Every drop of my blood holds a heritage of patriotism.
I am proud of my past. I hold faith in my future.
I am a Negro. I am an American. [End Page 398]
1. This manuscript headnote and poem reside in mss 113, Alice Dunbar-Nelson Papers, Special Collections, University of Delaware Library, Newark. A brief introduction can be found in “Writing Black Modernism: Two Poems by Alice Dunbar-Nelson,” by Caroline Gebhard with Katherine Adams and Sandra A. Zagarell, elsewhere in this issue.