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Young Writers Project: 'Real Americans'

Isabel Blankenbaker writes in response to the Young Writers Project prompt asking what it means to be a real American.
YWP Photo Library, photo by Hazel Civalier, Burlington, VT
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Isabel Blankenbaker writes in response to the Young Writers Project prompt asking what it means to be a real American.

Calling all the real Americans!
I’ve voiced it before and I know what it means.
I remember the term, but not pleasantly.
I suck in breath, knowledge seeping in.
I know where I’ve heard it before:
in a small sleepy town,
where they used it against me.

Calling all the real Americans!
I used to think about that phrase
and relish such a bitter irony,
wondering how on Earth it was that
those who shouted it out,
yelling it as a tease or taunt,
understood America the least.

Calling all the real Americans!
I remember the way they painted it,
“the Real American,”
as if there was just one, as if
all the others were just fakes,
and in their mind he was a hero –
a caped crusader who could do no wrong.

And somewhere between the lines
of sorrow and resentment,
there came the gift of rebellion
that allowed me to distort their image.
They were heroes, but less 50s Business Man and
more 60s Beat Poet,
their mistakes just a mask,
a disguise to get people to listen
as they sung out their ideals.

Most just see the mask,
I told myself.
And most, I suppose,
are content that way.
But I’m not,
I told myself,
promised myself.

Yet as I thought on it some more I realized,
I had made the same mistake as them.
I had painted, albeit my own version,
one singular, defined American.
We may have chosen different sides,
but still we both thought only in black and white,
letting the gray seep into the cracks in the mural.

Calling all the Real Americans!
Who exactly are you?
Are you the heroes?
The ones marching for rights?
The outcasts and underdogs
who cry out for freedom?

Or are you the ones beating them back?
Calling out insults and jeers
as you prey on people’s deepest fears?
Are you the small force bound to win?
Or are you the gargantuan villain?

Calling all the Real Americans!
Are you the ones who still hold true
to the founding principles?
Or are you the ones
who have grown so fixated,
on the details of older views,
that you have lost the ideals?

Calling all the real Americans!
Truth be told I don’t even know
what I should request of you.
Should I urge you to pick up the pen,
or beg of you to lay down your arms?
Because your faults are so strong
that they can only be overcome
by your ideals.

You, America, are a mix,
a combination of the man
and the mask he hides behind.

And I have come to realize that
Real Americans are not inherently good or bad,
for they are both the immigrant arriving
on a chilly December morn’
and the person shouting at them,
“Go back home!”

Real Americans!
Have both created and alleviated
the suffering of others.
Real Americans!
Are both wrong and right,
conformist and outcast,
all at the same time.

Real Americans!
Are an undefinable mix
of everything good and ill,
of ideals and details.
They are the shades of gray
that lie in between black and white.

Real Americans!
Are the cause,
and what solved,
America's greatest problems.

They have made choices,
both bad and good,
and now they are called upon once more.
So, I’m calling all the Real Americans,
and asking what kind of Real American they’re going to be.

The Young Writers Project provides VPR's audience another avenue to hear and read selections and see visual art and photography from Vermont's young writers and artists. The project is a collaboration organized by Susan Reid at the Young Writers Project. The thoughts and ideas expressed here are the writers' own and do not necessarily reflect those of Vermont Public Radio.

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