Listen to the poem “I, Too, Sing America” by Julia Alvarez:
My students and I just read this poem last week alongside Walt Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing” and Langston Hughes’s “I, Too.” In his poem, Whitman celebrates the dignity of the working class person as an embodiment of American values. Hughes then enters the conversation about sixty-five years later as the “darker brother” who, “Tomorrow, / [will] be at the table,” and “They’ll see how beautiful I am / And be ashamed.”
Then nearly a hundred years after Hughes’s advocacy of Black American representation, Alvarez adds her own voice: “it’s my turn / to oh say / what I see.”
I appreciate so many ideas in Alvarez’s poem. Even if they don’t represent my own exact cultural heritage, they do my wife’s and my daughter’s. First of all, Alvarez broadens her definition of America: from Tierra del Fuego in the southern tip of Argentina, up past the “thin waist” of Chiriquí in Panama and the “spine of the Mississippi,” all the way to Canada. For her, America is all of both South and North America.
I remember early in my teaching experience in El Salvador, I identified people from the United States as Americans. One of my students good naturedly but earnestly pointed out that he, too, is American. While I justified my use of the word as a weakness in the English language, he had a point. Imagine the hubris of a nation that identifies itself in place of two entire continents! Alvarez moves away from nationalistic sense of Americanism and instead defines it culturally and geographically, connecting America with the land, and (I’m extrapolating a bit here) with the longer tradition of indigenous people groups that pre-dated European conquest.
Alvarez speaks of a new song, “el canto que cuenta con toda America,” the song I sing with all all America. Is it possible to reimagine how America is defined, to envision a people defined not by national boundaries but by a shared continental culture, to celebrate what makes us American from the tippy-top of Canada to the far reaches of Tierra del Fuego? I look forward to that future.