Being a Practicing American

Brian Gongol

There are two iconic images of citizenship on Independence Day: Groups like the Daughters of the American Revolution (whose members "can prove lineal, bloodline descent from an ancestor who aided in achieving American independence") and crowds of immigrants being sworn to citizenship.

Most Americans, of course, are descended from people who came here sometime in between. Many of us have little knowledge of our own family histories, and that's unfortunate -- because taking some time to understand what brought our forebears here can help to shape our response to people seeking to come here today.

If you start to do genealogy in the expectation of discovering that you're a long-lost prince or a queen, forget it: If you're an American, it's because you aren't one of them. You'd know it already.

But it's good to know when and how your ancestors became "American", because it almost always tells a story that should give us some humility.

I happen to know a fair amount about my own family history -- a pedigree that is exceptionally wide-ranging.

Did my family become American when a young girl migrated to North America in the 1600s from France, well before this was even a country? Or did we become American thanks to my Metis ancestors in Sault Ste. Marie, people who come from the First Nations who long predated the arrival of Europeans on the continent?

Did my family become American thanks to my great-great-great grandfather, who was shot in the Civil War while fighting for the Union? Or did we become American when my ancestors fled Ireland and came here as economic refugees in the waning years of the great potato famine?

Did my family become American because of people who were here at the time of the Revolutionary War? Or was it not complete until my last-arriving ancestors came here around the turn of the 20th Century?

The knowledge of my own genealogy is one of the main reasons I reject the idea that someone is American only because of their blood.

My ancestors came here from places like Norway and Czechia and Ireland and Canada -- many of them coming from countries that were governed by foreign powers, from Sweden to the Austrian Empire to the British. Some came from places that aren't even countries anymore. Each of them "declared independence" when they came here and ultimately became citizens. That's a very big deal, but to be a free citizen of a democratic republic wasn't in their blood. If anything was "in their blood", it was to be a subject of a foreign king.

We don't inherit American values in our literal DNA. We learn them and practice them, and if we're really doing them justice, we try to improve upon them before handing them on to the next generation. My grandmother was born here in Iowa before the Constitution even guaranteed her the right to vote. We consider that a woman's birthright today, but I challenge anyone to find it somewhere in our genes.

That's why it's ugly and grating to hear a Congressman (whose district includes my grandmother's birthplace) make the flaccid argument that some people make better Americans than others because of their ethnicities. To truly be an American is to believe in certain inalienable rights, certain civic and republican virtues, and a certain sense of honor that have nothing to do with the lineage of your parents. It has everything to do with beliefs that must be taught, explained, and expanded upon.

If truly embracing American values were as easy as inheriting your eye color from your parents, then maybe the ethno-nationalists would have a point. But it's not that easy, so they don't. America is a perpetual project. Truly being American is really a skill -- it must be learned, and it must be practiced. It can't be anything less.

That's not the easy way to go through life, for a person or for a country. But it's the right one. No matter when your ancestors chose it (or perhaps when you yourself did), being American takes work in every generation. In that, we should take pride: It's not enough to be born American. It's the responsibility of each of us to be a practicing American.