nation of immigrants

What Is an American?

January 1 marked the 124th anniversary of the opening of Ellis Island. Years later, in 1916, the immigrant inspection station was opened. Over the course of 60 years, more than 12 million immigrants came through the island.

Almost all of my great-grandparents were among that number, although, according to a sister who has been researching our history on ancestry.com, we can’t find any records. A fire destroyed the original station in 1897. It’s likely that our family’s records went up in flames with so many others’. Although — like many New Yorkers — I’ve never been there (who really has the time to schlep over there except tourists or class trips?), the island looms large in our collective self-understanding. Yes, we are Americans, but for us “American” meant “immigrant.”

'...That All Men Are Created Equal'

The 'Betsy Ross' flag and the Statue of Liberty. Photo courtesy WELBURNSTUART/sh

The 'Betsy Ross' flag and the Statue of Liberty. Photo courtesy WELBURNSTUART/shutterstock.com.

People know.

Not just Americans, but the entire globe.

People know that the founders didn't mean it then, nor does this nation mean it now. Sure, the words were written down, and our leaders frequently point to them as evidence that we are good. But no one really meant them. They were merely a means to an end.

Back in 1776, when representatives from a bunch of colonies wrote the words, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal," they did not in fact mean all men.

But people know that.

The Kind of American I Want to Be

Grunge American flag, Piotr Krzeslak / Shutterstock.com

Grunge American flag, Piotr Krzeslak / Shutterstock.com

There have been Ingelses of my line in the United States, the colonies, since well before our independence was declared. And my mother's family, too, has deep American roots representing various social, political, and spiritual diasporas. 

My family lore and mystery include numerous tales of revolutionaries, pioneers, early American educators, statesmen, industrialists, philanthropists, and even Indian captives. Many of you have probably read the works of one of my forebears, Laura Ingalls Wilder, who recounts what life was like for people who headed into great unknowns to make familiar places for themselves, a sense of home, community, belonging.

Other well-known American ancestors were DeHarts and Boones, people whose vigor and muscle are legendary in the colonies and at various points along the frontier.

And of this stock in my stew, I am ever proud.

But every American started as an immigrant, and along the lines leading to me are other sorts of immigrants, too.

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