Two Meanings in "American"

Candice Bradley (Candice.Bradley@LAWRENCE.EDU)
Sun, 19 Feb 1995 08:57:40 -0600

The problem with the word "American" is that it has two distinct meanings. One
use refers to the continent, such that everyone living on the continent is an
"American" just as a Kenyan and a Nigerian are both "Africans." The other use,
just as correct, refers to citizenship in a nation called "United States of
America." I am an "American" in this sense just the way my cousins from
"Republic of Ecuador" or "Federative Republic of Brazil" are Ecuadorians and
Brazilians. The continent could have been called "Colombia" and we could all
have had that ambiguity to deal with instead.

I first encountered this issue of "American" during the late 1960's when I
was pestered about it by my teenage friends in Quito. Never mind that we were
all of exactly the same type of European heritage. To them, I was the
imperialist American because I called myself by a name they said belonged to
all of us. I and my country were arrogant and colonialist because we
had appropriated the continent's name as our own. They insisted I say I was
from "the States." I always found this disturbing -- I was as much from "the
States" as they were from "the Republic." What if we had called ourselves not
the "United States" but the "Federated Republic of America"? What would we
have been told to call ourselves then? (And if we are the "United States,"
then what is Mexico?)

Thus, I've thought about this for a long time, and I think there are other
questions to ask. Why does the name of this country so disturb folks in other
countries on this continent? Is it about name, or is it about something else
that name represents? And is this discussion so firmly embedded in the
post-colonial era that we could not have had it before the 1960's? Is this a
form of "name guilt" through which we atone for our imperialism?

Candice Bradley
Lawrence University/Appleton WI