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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 Lincoln’s 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 isn’t
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. Today’s 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 Lincoln’s 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

He did this because. Too. one would get an area that encompasses all of North and South America. Alvarez provides geographical locations to aid her argument: “Of Tierra del Fuego/ To the great plain face of Canada” (Alvarez 17. A multitude of people of different ethnicities. Someone native to Brazil is not a white male. A quote from Of Mice and Men establishes this: “there wasn’t another colored family for miles around” (Steinbeck 70). just as someone from Mexico is not a white man. if one is a citizen of America. Sing America” says that an American is more than someone just born in America. but someone born in either North or South America. no particular race is seen in either of the definitions presented by the next two pieces. native to the US.Williams 2 white men who supported his presidency by voting for him. Lincoln decisively failed to say colored citizens. 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. If he believed otherwise. there would be no reason to describe the family as “colored. true. Likewise. If one were to connect the two areas provided.” These simple words encapsulate the opinion of . 24). At the time of the speech “oneeighth of the whole population were colored slaves” (Lincoln 15). This conveys that an American is one who was born on one of the American continents. Steinbeck also signifies that an American is a white male. This disagrees with Lincoln and Steinbeck’s element of race in the definition. However. ranging from very pale to very dark. 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. Nevertheless. author of “I. They both believed that an American was a white man. This video depicts an American as anyone who lives and works in this country regardless of their racial makeup.” Between Lincoln and Steinbeck the element of race in the definition of an American remained the same. then one is American. utter these words: “I am an American. Julia Alvarez.

Williams 3 the element of race in the definition of and American. Without slaves. “I. Particularly in the south. Sing America. Too. Steinbeck believes that an American is one who has four walls and a roof to feel safe and secure in. In his work Of Mice and Men. “Someday—we’re gonna get the jack together and we’re gonna have a little house and a couple of acres an’ a cow and some pigs” (Steinbeck 13). the economy was dependent on the slave’s free labor. and Lincoln. 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. has a different view point on security in his denotative meaning of American.” she displays this idea by writing in both English and Spanish: “Yo también soy America/ I. This is radically different from the view of Lincoln on the subject. Lincoln’s 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 South’s economy. Lincoln says to his listeners “These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest” (16). Steinbeck. John Steinbeck. The PSA implies the true liberty of living in America. Being treated as equal is security to . In her poem. too. Steinbeck believes in domestic security. George voices stories to Lennie about the farm they will have in the future. This attitude continues to evolve into something more positive as time goes on. Compared to Lincoln’s economical security. on the other hand. At the time of “Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address” security was in the form of a prosperous economy. Julia Alvarez captures the idea that equality is security in the definition of American. George tells Lennie. The aspect of security for George and Lennie is to own a piece of land where they can live without care. The effect of saying the same thing in two languages represents equality between the two. the South’s sense of security would have been eradicated. The PSA’s new attitude toward race diminishes those of Alvarez. am America” (Alvarez 51-52). Here he speaks on how these slaves are the source of security for the South.

anyone who lives on the American continents are American. if we stand united. Again. of different ethnicities. Additionally. Similarly. in the “I am an American” PSA. one. The economic security of Lincoln’s time stands no chance to the united people of the United States of America. When translated “familia” reads as “family”. They indicate that all human beings living in the Americas are American. except just in the United . will correct itself over time just as everything else regarding an American has. however. According to Alvarez.Williams 4 Alvarez. and most importantly. “I am an American”. are Americans. If America is a family we are all Americans. “I am an American” does the same thing.” Unity triumphs and outweighs everything. “E Pluribus Unum. Without equality there can be no unity. an indication of change in society between the slavery of Lincoln’s time to the mid 1930’s of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. During the time of Lincoln. There was no reason to call immigrants American. domestic security will come as we work together to achieve the goals of the American Dream. immigrants and all who reside here. Immigrants were not considered white. we see this unity stronger than ever. The video ends with three words in Latin. “Out of many. Alvarez calls here vision of America a “familia” (Alvarez 28). they could not vote. Domestic security is very important. Sing America”. unity. This change becomes evident in “I. In the same way. an immigrant was not considered an American. there is a free black man in the text. However. say. in Of Mice and Men. a shift in the definition of American becomes apparent in the Alvarez’s poem and the PSA.” Translated to English the Latin reads. Too. Alvarez makes this clear once more when she uses words like “ours” (Alvarez 40) and “everyone” (Alvarez 44). This unity presents itself when citizens. Equality security. the security aspect derives from that of Alvarez. Steinbeck does not comment on immigrants. Discussed earlier while exploring race as a factor. however. also important. Produced ten years after the attack on the nation. the time period warranted the definition of an American as a white male who could vote.

A religious person would not do this. the faith of many people was broken. Too. Without immigrants. and African. Each of them are doing necessary jobs that we need in order to survive. In Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck religion is not talked about. but differently. Some of the ethnicities claiming to be American include: Jamaican. President Lincoln alludes to the Bible proving this: “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether” (32-33). All people are welcome to worship whomever and whatever they believe. the second scene has two women wearing articles . The producers of “I am an American” present the same argument. America would not be what we see today. all are built and maintained my immigrants. or lack thereof. not his religious preference. They argue that religion is not required to be an American. The US is built on immigrants. Alvarez’s view on religion as part of the designation of an American is completely lacking in “I. Americans have always been religiously free. however. at the present time. Without our immigrants a large group of our citizens would disappear leaving many jobs left undone. In the assembly of people presented in the video. literally. Curley uses “God damn” (Steinbeck 53) while in conversation. neither does Alvarez or the producers of “I am an American”. but one has a choice. Written during the great depression. Alvarez’s poem reflects that the label of “American” comes from the location in which one lives. Asian. he put on a religious mask in order to relate to the average American at the time. Religion is a preference not a destiny. Steinbeck’s believes you do not have to be religious to be American. Our infrastructure. Alvarez purposefully does this to reveal she believes religion has no effect on who is or is not American. Sing America”. recreational sites.Williams 5 States of America. Likewise. Another indicator that religion was not part of Steinbeck’s American is the use of God’s name in vain. These two works indicate the element of immigration in the definition of an American. Lincoln was not a religious man. homes.

One wears all white with a head dress. and yet we are called Americans. however. This serves to why her definition is so dissimilar. People would have to stay the same and dare not to be different. For the creators of “I am an American. During the time of Lincoln. the denotation of a landowning. the fact is. America is a nation free of religious tyranny. Immigrants may not be born here. and immigration have changed. With that being said. The elements of the definition of an American are ever-changing. race. who feels secure. One would only see uniformity. The diversity would be virtually non-existent. America would be a very mind-numbing place. because her family is native to the Dominican Republic. who may be an immigrant. we are not faced with this. This assumption may or may not be true. equality is security to her. . Thanks to the ever changing nature of the definition. Alvarez does not. for the most part in the positive. Had there been a static definition for the term. Thankfully. we are able to live in a country where no one is the same. since she was born in the United States. However. Those who did dare to be different would receive looks of disgust and be judged. white man has shifted to what we see today: someone living in the United States. If Alvarez’s family was not treated as equal to her. and can freely choose their religion. Americans are ever changing. all black with a head dress. Lincoln and Steinbeck both present a definition of someone born in the United States. Earlier discussed. as the people of the nation changed. voting. however. Alvarez’s explanation of someone born on the American continents is only similar to the “I am an American” PSA producers’ definition.” the argument is that immigrants are as much as American’s as you and I. she would not feel secure.Williams 6 of clothing that indicate they may be nuns. security. The fluidity of the definition is essential since America and its people change constantly. attitudes toward religion. they come and provide many services that we cannot do without. the other.

Williams 7 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”.