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Devyn Williams
AP English III
Mr. Dreisbach
09 December 2013
An American: Defined Over Time
Over time, the demonym American has been reshaped and altered by people as they
have indicated their opinion in works of literature, various art forms, and multimedia. Some
common definitions of American include: someone born in the United States (US), a legal
citizen of the US, or someone who is in the US illegally, but supports the economy by working. I
define an American as a working class citizen, born in the US; who lives by the laws and
regulations set in place by our government; and has never, and will never commit treasonous acts
against the nation. In Abraham Lincolns second Inaugural Address, his definition of an
American is someone who is born in American and brought up religiously. John Steinbeck
portrays an American in Of Mice and Men as someone wanting security in life, who isnt
necessarily religious, who may be of different skin tones. Julia Alvarez, author of I, Too, Sing
America, illustrates an American as anyone who lives in the United States despite the fact they
might not have been born there. And in the I am an American PSA an American is clearly
defined as a person living and working in the US with no dependency on skin color.
Given that these works were published at different times, by different people, the
definition was bound to change. An American is one who exemplifies the liberties of this nation
no matter the color of their skin; over time, religion, race, security, and immigration have been
found in the definition throughout the above texts. Todays definition consist of all of these
elements; however, the attitudes toward them have shifted to become more positive and
representative of the time period.
In Lincolns second inaugural address, the definition of an American is presented as a
white man who could vote. He starts his speech with fellow-countrymen (Lincoln 1). Prior
knowledge of the civil war era would indicate to us that Lincoln was speaking to a group of

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white men who supported his presidency by voting for him. At the time of the speech oneeighth of the whole population were colored slaves (Lincoln 15). Lincoln decisively failed to
say colored citizens. He did this because, if one is a citizen of America, then one is American.
Likewise, Steinbeck also signifies that an American is a white male, native to the US. A quote
from Of Mice and Men establishes this: there wasnt another colored family for miles around
(Steinbeck 70). The use of colored to describe the family points out that racism is still present
and that he holds his opinion that colored people are not American, true. If he believed
otherwise, there would be no reason to describe the family as colored. Between Lincoln and
Steinbeck the element of race in the definition of an American remained the same. They both
believed that an American was a white man. However, no particular race is seen in either of the
definitions presented by the next two pieces.
Julia Alvarez, author of I, Too, Sing America says that an American is more than
someone just born in America, but someone born in either North or South America. Alvarez
provides geographical locations to aid her argument: Of Tierra del Fuego/ To the great plain
face of Canada (Alvarez 17, 24). If one were to connect the two areas provided, one would get
an area that encompasses all of North and South America. This conveys that an American is one
who was born on one of the American continents. This disagrees with Lincoln and Steinbecks
element of race in the definition. Someone native to Brazil is not a white male, just as someone
from Mexico is not a white man. Nevertheless, the racial component in the definition of an
American in the I am an American PSA is completely different of those presented above
regarding race.
This video depicts an American as anyone who lives and works in this country regardless
of their racial makeup. A multitude of people of different ethnicities, ranging from very pale to
very dark, utter these words: I am an American. These simple words encapsulate the opinion of

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the element of race in the definition of and American. The PSAs new attitude toward race
diminishes those of Alvarez, Steinbeck, and Lincoln. The PSA implies the true liberty of living in
At the time of Lincolns Second Inaugural Address security was in the form of a
prosperous economy. Particularly in the south, the economy was dependent on the slaves free
labor. Without slaves, the Souths sense of security would have been eradicated. Lincoln says to
his listeners These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest (16). Here he speaks on
how these slaves are the source of security for the South. Lincolns knowledge that this interest
was somehow the cause of the war (16-17) further reinforces that fact that he knows how
significant the slaves were to the Souths economy. John Steinbeck, on the other hand, has a
different view point on security in his denotative meaning of American. In his work Of Mice and
Men, George voices stories to Lennie about the farm they will have in the future. George tells
Lennie, Somedaywere gonna get the jack together and were gonna have a little house and a
couple of acres an a cow and some pigs (Steinbeck 13). The aspect of security for George and
Lennie is to own a piece of land where they can live without care. They just want to be able to
get their money together so they can purchase the land and never have to worry about being
forced to move due to something Lennie did. This is radically different from the view of Lincoln
on the subject. Compared to Lincolns economical security, Steinbeck believes in domestic
security. Steinbeck believes that an American is one who has four walls and a roof to feel safe
and secure in. This attitude continues to evolve into something more positive as time goes on.
Julia Alvarez captures the idea that equality is security in the definition of American. In
her poem, I, Too, Sing America, she displays this idea by writing in both English and Spanish:
Yo tambin soy America/ I, too, am America (Alvarez 51-52). The effect of saying the same
thing in two languages represents equality between the two. Being treated as equal is security to

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Alvarez. Similarly, in the I am an American PSA, the security aspect derives from that of
Alvarez, unity. Without equality there can be no unity. Produced ten years after the attack on the
nation, we see this unity stronger than ever. This unity presents itself when citizens, of different
ethnicities, say, I am an American. The video ends with three words in Latin, E Pluribus
Unum. Translated to English the Latin reads, Out of many, one. Unity triumphs and
outweighs everything. The economic security of Lincolns time stands no chance to the united
people of the United States of America. Domestic security is very important; however, if we
stand united, domestic security will come as we work together to achieve the goals of the
American Dream. Equality security, also important, however, will correct itself over time just as
everything else regarding an American has.
During the time of Lincoln, an immigrant was not considered an American. Discussed
earlier while exploring race as a factor, the time period warranted the definition of an American
as a white male who could vote. Immigrants were not considered white, and most importantly,
they could not vote. There was no reason to call immigrants American. Additionally, in Of Mice
and Men, Steinbeck does not comment on immigrants. However, there is a free black man in the
text, an indication of change in society between the slavery of Lincolns time to the mid 1930s
of Steinbecks Of Mice and Men. This change becomes evident in I, Too, Sing America.
Again, a shift in the definition of American becomes apparent in the Alvarezs poem and
the PSA. According to Alvarez, anyone who lives on the American continents are American.
Alvarez calls here vision of America a familia (Alvarez 28). When translated familia reads
as family. If America is a family we are all Americans; immigrants and all who reside here, are
Americans. Alvarez makes this clear once more when she uses words like ours (Alvarez 40)
and everyone (Alvarez 44). They indicate that all human beings living in the Americas are
American. In the same way, I am an American does the same thing, except just in the United

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States of America. Some of the ethnicities claiming to be American include: Jamaican, Asian,
and African. Each of them are doing necessary jobs that we need in order to survive. Without
immigrants, America would not be what we see today. Without our immigrants a large group of
our citizens would disappear leaving many jobs left undone. The US is built on immigrants,
literally. Our infrastructure, homes, recreational sites, all are built and maintained my
immigrants. These two works indicate the element of immigration in the definition of an
American, at the present time.
Americans have always been religiously free. All people are welcome to worship
whomever and whatever they believe. President Lincoln alludes to the Bible proving this: the
judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether (32-33). Lincoln was not a religious
man; however, he put on a religious mask in order to relate to the average American at the time.
In Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck religion is not talked about. Written during the great
depression, the faith of many people was broken. Another indicator that religion was not part of
Steinbecks American is the use of Gods name in vain. Curley uses God damn (Steinbeck 53)
while in conversation. A religious person would not do this. Steinbecks believes you do not have
to be religious to be American. Likewise, neither does Alvarez or the producers of I am an
Alvarezs view on religion as part of the designation of an American is completely
lacking in I, Too, Sing America. Alvarez purposefully does this to reveal she believes religion
has no effect on who is or is not American. Religion is a preference not a destiny. Alvarezs poem
reflects that the label of American comes from the location in which one lives, not his religious
preference, or lack thereof. The producers of I am an American present the same argument, but
differently. They argue that religion is not required to be an American, but one has a choice. In
the assembly of people presented in the video, the second scene has two women wearing articles

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of clothing that indicate they may be nuns. One wears all white with a head dress; the other, all
black with a head dress. This assumption may or may not be true; however, the fact is, America
is a nation free of religious tyranny.
The elements of the definition of an American are ever-changing. During the time of
Lincoln, the denotation of a landowning, voting, white man has shifted to what we see today:
someone living in the United States, who feels secure, who may be an immigrant, and can freely
choose their religion. Alvarezs explanation of someone born on the American continents is only
similar to the I am an American PSA producers definition. Lincoln and Steinbeck both present
a definition of someone born in the United States. Alvarez does not, because her family is native
to the Dominican Republic. Earlier discussed, equality is security to her. If Alvarezs family was
not treated as equal to her, since she was born in the United States, she would not feel secure.
This serves to why her definition is so dissimilar. For the creators of I am an American, the
argument is that immigrants are as much as Americans as you and I. Immigrants may not be
born here; however, they come and provide many services that we cannot do without. Thanks to
the ever changing nature of the definition, we are able to live in a country where no one is the
same, and yet we are called Americans.
The fluidity of the definition is essential since America and its people change constantly.
Had there been a static definition for the term, America would be a very mind-numbing place.
The diversity would be virtually non-existent. One would only see uniformity. People would
have to stay the same and dare not to be different. Those who did dare to be different would
receive looks of disgust and be judged. However, we are not faced with this. Thankfully, as the
people of the nation changed, attitudes toward religion, race, security, and immigration have
changed, for the most part in the positive. With that being said, Americans are ever changing,

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making an optimistic outlook for the future. In the words of Zig Ziglar, Building a better you is
the first step to building a better America.