Exerpts of my Seeds of Peace journal reflecting on my American Identity

Jacob Shaw

I’m meeting the other kids (the people I’ll be eating, sleeping, and breathing next to for the next three weeks) tomorrow. Israelis, Palestinians, Jordanians, Egyptians, Indians, Pakistanis—and I’m American. […] I might be one of the first Americans they’ve ever met. The United States’ legacy is in my hands, I’ll be its face. But I am not a patriot.
Former campers, giving us advice and preparing us for camp, say that it’s natural to feel ashamed for our country’s actions, what they call “American guilt.” But I don’t feel personally responsible for this country’s actions—these conflicts were started in an era of American history that my grandparents, the poor children of Ukrainian and Lithuanian Jewish refugees, were only starting to get to know? Should I feel ashamed for having been born in a country like this, that did these things?
It was the first day of my delegation’s orientation, four months ago now. We’d had a long day of preparation—we received general information, brief histories of the conflicts, and were emotionally prepared for the intensity of the camp that would be my home for the next three weeks. But for everything we learned, my mind was particularly stuck on one thing—why was I there? Well, I knew how I was there—I submitted an essay to apply, and they happened to like it. But why me, why us? Despite the fact that we were constantly reminded that we weren’t ambassadors—we didn’t have to voice our nation’s perspective, but were there to be ourselves—I knew I would inevitably carry the weight of America’s stained history on my shoulders.

Today they raised my country’s flag, along with the flags of every other delegation. When it was our turn to sing the anthem, it didn’t feel like it ever felt before. In the past, I was just one in a crowd of Americans. But then, I was representing America in front of an international audience, holding my hand over my heart, facing the same flag that generals had carried onto the battlefield, flying in the wind as they slaughtered the indigenous inhabitants off their own lands, nearly fifty before my family had even arrived.
Is my home America—am I, in my heart, truly American? In this nation, albeit far from the familiarity of my family, some people desecrate tombstones with swastikas and shoot down worshippers, huddled and begging for mercy, in our houses of worship with automatic assault rifles. And yet, due to the color of our skin, we are still benefited by white privilege, and we make more money than the average American. Yet others seem to think that my people fit right in and face no real hate, and antisemitism is a problem that died with the Nazis. […]
And if I am, in my heart, not truly American, what am I? Where is my home?
I didn’t know who I was or what I was representing, yet I sang the same words I was taught to sing. To me in that moment, the country I was praising was far from being the land of the free and the home of the brave, and it felt far from even being my home. I felt no connection to those words or the flag in front of me.

Tonight is Intercultural Night, the US Delegation doesn’t have one, cohesive culture, and doing the Cha-Cha-Slide wasn’t going to cut it. This is all we could agree on. The rest was up for debate.
Sarah B, our director, told us that we all, of course, couldn’t ever come close to representing the entirety of ANY nation’s culture. What we could do, however, she said, was represent our own cultural identities, and celebrate who we were.
I heard the other delegations had been planning out their traditional dances for months before camp even started. My friends told me about how beautiful their national colors looked, how graceful they were in practices, and how excited they were to share their identity.
Half of my delegation hated our country, and decided to make this their culture. They pushed the other half out of the discussion, and decided to write a spoken word piece about our nation’s flaws, about their “American guilt,” about how they still had no love for their country.
I heard laughter from the Small Hall; it was the Egyptian Delegation’s excitement and pride they had in their culture. That night, for them, was going to be a day to celebrate their pride in their own culture, aside from the problems their nations faced. Egypt, as my friends told me, is under a military dictatorship. If you were openly gay, like one of my friend Nadir was, you were at risk of imprisonment or execution. Yet despite all of that, when the time comes to share their nation by way of their culture, they all (including Nadir) feel proud to be Egyptian. My Pakistani friend Oma, who was shunned by her own family for battling with depression (since in her culture, she told me, mental health was seen as completely culturally taboo), still readily found love in her culture. But according to my delegation, there was no pride to be felt in mine.
My experience that afternoon before Intercultural Night sticks vividly in my mind. Did they really have no pride in our nation? No pride in the victories our countrymen and countrywomen—Martin Luther King Jr., Eleanor Roosevelt, Harriet Tubman, Gloria Steinam, to name a few—won, with years of hard work and sacrifice, to advance civil rights, freedom, and democracy in our country—did they feel grateful for our liberty, objectively unparalleled by our friends’ nations (as they would tell us on every other night besides Intercultural Night), that allowed them to voice these opinions? We all agreed that our country was far from perfect, and that there was still a daunting amount of work ahead of us—I was ashamed that they, for one five minute performance, could not look beyond our country’s shortcomings and recognize just how privileged we are as American citizens (and how lucky we are to even have the right to voice these opinions).
I would deliver my delegation’s cultural performance that night, a statement to the rest of the camp: it was impossible to create a piece that accurately reflected the diversity of identity and opinion of our nation, and because of that, we didn’t want to misrepresent the diversity of our delegation.
America is a melting pot of cultures, identities, and ideas, and I truly believe that in the end, our “performance” reflected that concept. I deeply disagreed (and still disagree) with half of my delegation—to me, American identity was more than shame and discontent. And as Americans, we were both entitled to have our own opinions, and we were both legally allowed to be “American” in our own ways, and we would be promised the same rights regardless—and that night, I felt proud to be an American.