California Forum

What does it even mean to be American now?

Artist Inertia DeWitt’s exploration of American identity is part of Beacon: Sacramento’s “America Week.”
Artist Inertia DeWitt’s exploration of American identity is part of Beacon: Sacramento’s “America Week.”

It is surreal to live in America today. It is hard to even be hyperbolic when we are faced with the division, cynicism, and rampant incompetence that characterize our federal political leadership.

Bridges and advances that have taken generations to build seem to be crumbling. And what is more alarming is that they seem to not have been all that resilient to begin with. As a country we are on edge, and I would go as far as to say we haven’t seen anything yet.

So in this context what does America mean? Sitting through the acclaimed musical “Hamilton” a couple of months ago, I was struck by how potent the idea of America still is.

A country born out of rebellion. A place of boundless opportunity. A meritocracy. A country that welcomes and benefits from its immigrants. A capitalist success story built on the backs of slaves. The list goes on and becomes way more fraught the more you think honestly about it.

At Beacon: Sacramento, the public arts space some of us have created downtown at 10th and K Streets, our featured artist for “America Week” is a woman named Inertia DeWitt. In her piece, you get a sense of this complicated identity.

America is liberty, Wonder Woman, Times Square, Yellowstone and apple pie; America is also where black people are shot with regularity while their killers are not held accountable by juries of their peers. It is a country attempting to claw back hard-fought reproductive rights for its female citizens. It is a country that demonizes immigrants while ignoring their contributions. It is a country that elects Donald Trump.

America is made up of 321.4 million people as of this writing. Who are we? And are we capable of building a country that reflects what we say we deserve?

For my collaborators and me, America is still a unique place that is resourceful enough to find a silver lining in even the grimmest of circumstances. The purpose of Beacon is to show that resistance and creativity are vital tools now and going forward.

Artists who have other compelling, and potentially more lucrative, options are spending time and energy advocating for what they believe in and trying to inspire people to do the same. Displaying those efforts in the public sphere, a block from the Capitol and in the center of what must be called a homeless epidemic, is one way to provoke thought about what is possible.

We are not alone. For Beacon to be possible, an Iranian immigrant developer and his first-generation daughter had to partner with a gay and black “placemaker,” a black female curator, a half-Kenyan, half-Polish tech genius, and a half-Chinese, half-Jewish architect, and all had to trust one another enough to take risks and promote a vision of our country that is real but also optimistic.

Nothing could be more American than that kind of fortitude and alliance, the kind that will be necessary for us all to keep things from going completely off the rails and forever tarnishing what America stands for.

What is America? It is truly up to us.

Tre Borden is a placemaker, artistic consultant and entrepreneur. Visit his website at treborden.com.

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