The Struggle to Understand Identity

What does it mean to be a nation and to have a national identity? Before, I would simply use the word ‘nation’ to describe the United States, without really giving it much thought. I always referred to the United States as a nation, perhaps because of my years of reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, where I recite “One nation, under God.” Perhaps not, but I can’t really be sure. Reading Anderson’s introduction has helped me define nation in some way or another. He defines a nation as “limited” simply “because event the largest of them… has finite, if elastic boundaries, beyond which lie other nations” (Anderson 7). This I know to be true. Yet, Anderson shares one more thing that truly helps me put some sort of a meaning to the word nation. He states, “[The nation] is imagined as a community, because, regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship” (Anderson 7). I have seen our nation represented in this light. No matter the inequalities, there has been a general sense of nation and of national identity. The sense that “WE can get through this” and “WE stand together.” As of late though, I have seen this change in some sense. Reading Ashcroft, Jameson, Cesaire, and Desai has made me question exactly what a nation is and if there truly is a type of national identity that goes along with it. According to Ashcroft, “Modern nations such as the United States, with their multi-ethnic composition, require the acceptance of an overarching national ideology” (Ashcroft 136). While I have always equated ‘nation’ to Ascroft’s thoughts that a nation shares a national ideology, I have begun to question this notion after reading postcolonial theory. With everything going on in current events today, I can’t help but wonder if this nation, the United States, really shares a national ideology.

I can’t help but relate the nation’s current events to last week’s readings and videos about the single story and how a single story can hurt identities and dignity. Those who are being blocked access to America are falling victim to the single story. There are assumptions being made that these foreign born individuals are terrorists. They are being equated to the terrorists who carried out the 9/11 attacks. I feel that these people that were stopped and detained at the airport were victimized by the single story. My heart aches for the family that was set to move to a newly renovated house in Allentown in order to seek a better life. (If you haven’t seen it, read the article here. However, due to the Presidential executive order, they were turned away, despite the fact that they had valid visas, and sent back to Syria. I have always been taught that America is the land of the free and the land of opportunities. I had always believed that America was willing to help others, especially those who are in dire need. Now, after hearing about the Presidential orders that are attempting to keep people out, I am not sure what to believe, what to ask, or what to say.

November 24, 2015

I think there is a type of ignorance that goes along with this. Most of us are sheltered by the freedoms and opportunities afforded to us in America. I believe that many people refuse to consider what is going on outside our little American bubble (I do not wish to imply that everyone is so, but it would be ignorant to assume that everyone cares about matters in other parts of the world). It is similar to Jameson’s thoughts in his essay “Third-World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism.” In reading third-world literature, there is a type of sympathy for theses texts. But, Jameson argues, this sympathy “is itself frequently but a disguise for some deeper fear of the affluent about the way people actually live in other parts o the world—a way of life that still has little in common with daily life in the American suburb” (Jameson 66). We are typically sheltered, unless we choose not to be. And, in reality, some would rather be sheltered and ignorant than to face the reality of the outside world, something that can be terrifying because one does not know how to connect with it or sympathize with it. Jameson shares that many times, it is hard for us to share with the “Other” because of “our own non-coincidence with that Other reader, so different from ourselves” (Jameson 66). In order to understand and correctly sympathize, “we would have to give up a great deal that is individually precious to us and acknowledge an existence and a situation unfamiliar and therefore frightening—one that we do not know and prefer not to know” (Jameson 66). If this is not an accurate description of some of today’s ignorance, then I don’t know what is.

So where, then, does a national identity stand? What exactly is a national identity and who defines this?

I believe that the forefront of a nation is its people. But what happens to these people when another, dominant power overtakes them, as in colonization? Aime Cesaire, in his writings Discourse on Colonialism shares the obliterating and crushing effects of colonialism on identity. Cesaire talks about “societies drained of their essence, cultures trampled under foot, institutions undermined, lands confiscated, religions smashed, magnificent artistic creations destroyed, extraordinary possibilities wiped out” –-all at the hands of the colonizers (Cesaire 62). All of these help define a people and, in turn, help define a nation, but once they are ripped apart by colonialism, it brings a crushing blow to identity. Instead of being a society that was once “content to be”, they become “an instrument of production” for the colonizer (Cesaire 62-63). Their identity is stripped from them and determined and dictated instead by the colonizing power. How then, can a people, stripped of their dignity, their culture, their identity, gain a sense of identity back? And does this create a national identity? Colonizers have, in a sense, trapped the natives. They have driven the notion “into the natives’ heads the idea that if the settlers were to leave, they would at once fall back into barbarism, degradation, and bestiality” (Fanon 201). Of course, the native people were never actually barbaric; this too was something that colonialism thrust upon indigenous people. So what, then, is there to do? Here is where I understood Fanon to be explaining the importance of a nation, of people coming together collectively, with the same ideology. He shares, “To fight for national culture means in the first place to fight for the liberation of the nation, that material keystone which makes the building of a culture possible” (Fanon 210). So can identity be achieved through freedom? Perhaps so, as I imagine one cannot have his or her identity while being controlled and colonized. Fanon has helped me understand national identity and national culture by saying, “A national culture is the whole body of efforts made by a people in the sphere of thought to describe, justify, and praise the action through which that people has created itself and keeps itself in existence. A national culture in underdeveloped countries should therefore take its place at the very heart of the struggle for freedom which these countries are carrying on” (Fanon 210). I think it is this coming together that can help from a national identity, if one were to be formed. I still believe it very difficult to define a national identity because I see so many nations that are fragmented, as Jameson mentions “our unavoidably fragmented society” (Jameson 67).

Going back to today, I think we are still “unavoidably fragmented”. I think that despite the wish for a national ideology, current events, as well as events from history, have divided ideologies and broken up the nation. Yes, we are all Americans here in this nation, but I think that ignorance can divide us in beliefs, actions, and identities.

This is all something that I am still wrestling with—the idea of nation, of a national ideology, and a national identity. The more I talk about it, the more questions I raise, the more I am confused about it, shocked about it, or concerned about it. The struggle to determine a national identity is real, but it is even more so troublesome to me as I widen my studies and look back through history, at colonialism and its effects then and still today, and as I look at events that are affecting my nation and the world today.

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2 thoughts on “The Struggle to Understand Identity

  1. “The struggle to determine a national identity is real, but it is even more so troublesome to me as I widen my studies and look back through history, at colonialism and its effects then and still today, and as I look at events that are affecting my nation and the world today.”

    This is a good struggle and one I think a lot of intellectually minded people have (unless of course, they’ve lost their intellectual curiosity). I remember turning down a gift of a patriotic ribbon in the days after 9/11. I am one of Nature’s antagonists and it was instinctual to say no. Where nationalism, and by extension patriotism, frighten me is when the need to build a national identity moves into the need to preserve that identity. That’s when group-think is rewarded and dissent squashed. The U.S., in theory, is supposed to be a melting pot not just of people but ideologies and values. On paper we should represent the best of the best, but we were built on the backs of the easily exploited and that exploitation continues today. The chains are mostly metaphorical, but the marks that are left are the same.

    Liked by 1 person

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