Standing in Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol, surrounded by the shades of great Americans immortalized in marble and bronze, I wondered if they could tell.
My girlfriend and I were enjoying a week in Washington, D.C., and she was more than happy to stop our tour group so I could pose under the statue of New Jersey’s own Richard Stockton. Our tour guide obliged the photo opportunity, and I smiled awkwardly under the beautifully carved chunk of marble, hoping beyond hope it wouldn’t spring to life and smash me where I stood.
For generations, it’s been a point of pride on my father’s side of the family to loudly decree that we descend directly from a signer of the Declaration of Independence. I was steeped and raised in this narrative, to the point that my decision to go to any college other than the one named after our great forefather was met with serious questions.
As a clan, our claim to being great Americans rested inviolably within this direct descent. We rested just above actual poverty and lacked any kind of family treasures, but you’d better believe that the handwritten family tree was the most valuable artifact we possessed, passed down from generation to generation. It was our proof of great citizenship; no matter what mistakes we made as human organisms, we would be forgiven as Americans.
In Statuary Hall, though, standing under a representation of the best thing my father’s side of the family has ever given the world, I couldn’t help but wonder if they could tell. My girlfriend, the numerous tour groups scuttling around, the immortal souls of the Great Americans forever gazing upon me and only me: I wondered if they could tell that I was a fraud.
Fuad Khazi Taima was born to wealth in Iraq. He came to America to study business, graduating from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School before marrying an American girl who — in time — would become my grandmother. Together they had five children, the last of them my mother. But before that last little one was old enough to form memories, her father skipped town and headed for the suburbs of Washington, D.C.
Depending on which postmortem report you read, Fuad Taima was either a tragic globalist or a gilded businessman completely lacking in authenticity. He settled in McLean, Virginia, and remarried. Together, he and his second wife had a son. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Fuad positioned himself as a successful businessman who happened to moonlight as the voice of Iraq in America.
While the motivations remain a mystery, the important fact is that my grandfather’s story ended in 1999 when he, his wife, and their teenage son were found murdered in their home. Detectives considered the killing “execution-style,” indicative of a premeditated offense. Rumors swirled of Saddam Hussein’s involvement, and before long, the grandfather I never met was buried as an enemy of the state.
This essay will be published in the 2017 edition of Nota Bene, the literary anthology produced by Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society featuring works by community college students, which will be available this winter. It is printed here with permission.
Back in the Capitol, crushed under the weight of all that marble and all that familial responsibility, I wondered if those around me — both alive and swirling in the eddies of history — could tell that I was simultaneously the most American and un-American person in the room.
The term “American” as an adjective rings dogmatic in 2017. Our elected leaders seem to go out of their way to assign definitive characteristics to their idealized version of the proper American citizen and punish those among us who don’t quite fit the mold, evident in our current president’s attempts at pushing a racially motivated travel ban and more recent establishment of a hotline intended only for the reporting of crimes committed by immigrants. But how does one define so damningly what an American is in order to punish and remove those who are not?
It’s no secret that our nation was borne to maturity by the immediate descendants of immigrants. Or that it was then propelled to economic superiority by immigrants. Our wars have been fought by immigrants, our students have been taught by immigrants, and our scientific answers to problems have been sought by immigrants. Our America as we know it is as fundamentally un-American as it gets.
But today, our leaders seem to want to rewrite that narrative. Before our great, varied country can even celebrate its 300th birthday, its politicians wish to distance themselves from the ethnically ambiguous foundations of America and purport that it is now possible to assign a verifiable state of Americanness, that we’ve had enough generations between us and the Founding Fathers to establish ourselves as a unique people.
Simply put, America is now old enough for government-sponsored nationalism. Has anyone making decisions to limit access to America run a full assessment on their own personal heritage?
Even if we allow the existence of a unique identity for each of the “older” nations of the world — those in Western Europe and Asia — we run into problems when tracing back the uniqueness of national lineage. A quick study of world history reveals that today’s British citizens are yesterday’s Romans, that today’s Italians share a certain Germanic heritage, and that today’s generalized Asians are surprisingly Mongolian.
Past conquests negate the veracity of current nationalism. If even the storied nations of the Old World are blocked from enjoying a limitless, homogeneous cultural identity, how can Americans in 2017 even pretend to have one?
The hard truth is that Americans — by historic definition — are problematic for quick categorizations. Every American citizen has an impossibly rich ethnic and cultural background; we’re all descended from explorers and thinkers, as well as murderers and bigots.
In the past, this cacophony of heritages was recognized as American greatness. There was no reason to fear a forebear’s checkered past because the future held only positive potential for all of that discordant familial flotsam. Today, though, a shared national identity is being forced upon us, despite the differences that formerly made us great.
As a product of discord, a walking American oxymoron, my sincere hope is that we find a way to collectively loose the veil of nationalism that is otherwise threatening to choke our actual, documented uniqueness out of existence. A selective American identity is no American identity worth pursuing, nor is it even possible to attain. By pushing toward that homogeneous impossibility, we do anything but make America great again.