Of all the (perhaps unfair but often earned) perceptions of America its progressive citizens despise, none surpass the accusation that Americans are culturally oblivious.
In response, many have earnestly tried to re-brand themselves as culturally savvy while abandoning mainstream American sensibilities. Instead of patronizing proud American culinary institutions like the Old Country Buffet and Little Caesar’s, we’ve welcomed the advent of miniscule portions courtesy of your local tapas and sushi bars. We rant against the demise of Top-40 radio while being mystified by the quirks and infectiousness of K-pop. While modern R&B flounders, we’ve dedicated the top of our album charts to Adele. We send our college students abroad for semesters in South America but are too afraid to let them drive through Newark, New Jersey. Most inexplicably, Belgium’s Stella has surpassed America’s Yuengling as the go-to choice for cheap but quality beer. In all these ways, it becomes clear. As our knowledge of other perspectives grow, we’ve begun to pride ourselves for being more than just American. This is sobering.
Which is not to say the beacons of Americanism don’t have their outlets from which to shine. Fox and Friends, your local school board, and Donald Trump have made it their mission to ensure their Pollyanna-esqe vision of America stays alive.
This, too, is sobering. If America is defined by these kinds of dog and pony shows, many want out. But in that process, we’ve traded away some of the qualities that make America a dynamic and vibrant country. In particular, we’ve traded away one of the most satisfying privileges of being an American: the right to shout out the U-S-A chant. We need to take that back.
On the surface, the chant is intimidating, relentless, and almost militant. In many ways, its represent an America its educated citizens have tried to disown, an America where values and beliefs can be imposed by reckless force. I disagree.
Few things are more humbling and inspiring than a “U-S-A” chant. It’s unifying, confident, and loud. It is a reminder that everything America achieved was declared and seized by force, a force of strength or a force of intellect, compassion, and bravery. In all the moments we celebrate as Americans, be assured, screaming was involved. Sometimes, understanding America doesn’t require dissecting academic articles or listening to lectures from intellectuals. Sometimes all it takes is joining the unfiltered sound generated by strangers bonded by their country and the ideals on which it stands.
This chant recently reentered my consciousness. Last week, the NBA underwent its annual draft, a selection of collegiate and amateur players into America’s highest level of professional basketball. Only 60 players are selected. Most taken were young, most being between the ages of 19-21. Bernard James was the 33nd pick for the Dallas Mavericks. He is 27. James could be described as a “super senior,” just not for the reasons you think.
James completed three tours of duty with the United States Air Force, working in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Qatar. After leaving, having earned the rank of Staff Sargent, he entered school at Florida State University. The NBA wasn’t on his radar. He wanted a degree. But years later, upon hearing his name announced, the crowd honored him with a moving round of “U-S-A”s.
When asked in an interview with Hoopsworld about how his perspective is different from others selected, James explained, “A lot of these kids haven’t seen a whole lot in their lives. For many of them, all they know is basketball. They’ve been playing since they were about eight years old and they don’t realize what it’s like in the real world, having a real job and working for $30,000 or $40,000 a year. I’ve definitely learned not to let a single day go to waste.”
The chants for James weren’t about advocating American intervention in the Middle East or our military presence there. It was about celebrating a man who realized his commitment to his country was not in conflict with his personal and professional goals. In fact, it was quite the opposite. His commitment helped make his personal and professional goals a reality. That’s a story all Americans can celebrate.
I’m not a blowhard who argues America is the greatest country in human history. That’s irrelevant. Had I been born in Spain, Korea, or Constantinople, I’d be writing celebratory pieces about their styles of food, their music, their beliefs, and their history. But in my ignorant point of view, chanting “E-S-P” could never be as phonetically satisfying as “U-S-A.” If we in America have the opportunity to chant, let’s do it.
Thankfully, this experience doesn’t have to be limited to hockey matches, the set of the Jerry Springer Show or frat parties. The next time you attend a local farmer’s market, remember, that’s an American experience. While you walk away with free-range goodies or pesticide free cider, why not let a few “U-S-As!” out? Imagine how powerful it would be if, at your local gay pride parade, men and woman took a moment to chant “U-S-A” over and over. The culture warriors of America wouldn’t know how to react. I do. Boa or no boa, I’d jump right in.
In that moment, that celebration enriches my American identity. Collectively, we often don’t recognize how our individual experiences were made possible by an overarching American experience that is worth celebrating together.
No doubt, there are a lot of frustrating realities about America. But remember: This country isn’t solely defined by people whose concept of it was cemented centuries ago. This defining process is still evolving. In that evolution, let’s not abandon some of the qualities we ought not feel ashamed about in the first place. Understanding and embracing other cultures is not outside of the American experience. It is the essence of the American experience. Whatever your American story is, make the “U-S-A” chant a part of its soundtrack.