Who gets to define what “America” means? Politicians get a lot of air time. We wanted to hear what “the people” think. So in Fall 2021, we launched a contest asking UConn students to tell us what “America” means to them. We received a diverse array of responses in the form of short essays, creative writing, poetry, photography, and other forms of original artwork, from students across UConn’s schools and campuses. Of these, eight winners rose to the top based on their originality, creativity, and quality.
View the video below to hear First Place Prize winner Nicholas Xenophontos read his essay and discuss his inspiration for this work.
“Meanings of America”
by Nicholas Xenophontos
CLAS, Sociology and Math
Class of 2023
Let us renounce stars, stripes, and eagles, for America is meaningless and in that fact we have our greatest strength. Albeit a maddening and confusing claim, it is nevertheless true that the defining trait of our sovereign nation is its lack of definition. This does not disavow any claims that we, as a people, hold certain traits or meanings as wholly American. After all, we are America the free, the brave, and the just, and in our shared belief of these principles we bring them into reality. However, we fail to recognize the consequences of these values’ existence, and how our creation of American meanings ultimately destroy themselves.
Consider: America is free, thus you are free. You can vote and run for office when eligible. You can live wherever, eat whatever, and work however you desire. You can do anything. However, America is free, thus your neighbor is free too. They can vote and run for office when eligible, even if that means voting for or creating policies that make you less eligible. Or perhaps your neighbor is your landlord, bodega owner, or boss, with the freedom to set your rent, prices, or wages. They are free enough to trap you financially, so that even with the freedom to buy carrots, your wallet will demand you always buy the cheaper produce. Hence, America is free, but you are merely dreaming of freedom, just as you are of carrots. You can do anything, but you will only do some things.
Consider: America is brave, thus you are brave. You have the courage to be yourself and pursue your Dream. You have the strength to cry when sad, laugh when happy, and swear when angry. You do not hold back. However, America is brave, thus your guardian is brave too. They have the courage to be themself and pursue their Dream, even if that means keeping you and your aspirations grounded. Or perhaps your guardian is your advisor, teacher, or religious leader, with the bravery to force you to stifle your tears, smiles, or language. They are brave enough to make sure you hold your tongue, so that even with the bravery to curse at failure, your heart will demand you remain reserved. Hence, America is brave, yet you are merely dreaming of bravery, just as you are of sobbing. You do not hold back, but you will manage expectations.
Consider: America is just, thus you are just. You know your morals and always support that which is right. You know what it means to be good, what it means to be evil, and how to tell them apart. You know all truths. However, America is just, thus, your sibling is just too. They know their morals and always support that which is right, even if that means supporting what you know is wrong. Or perhaps your sibling is your police, judge, or local activist, with the justice to enforce good, condemn evil, and debate the differences. They are just enough to build laws, so that even with the justice to know such laws are wrong, your mind will demand you accept them. Hence, America is just, yet you are merely dreaming of justice, just as you are for fair laws. You know all truths, but you cannot understand others’ truths.
Try any core pillar of American identity and you will find hypocrisy, redundancy, and irony. Our entire history is one of betrayal to any of our intrinsic merits, starting with the colonial destruction of the Natives’ society, land, and culture, leading into a scarred and bloodied past far too extensive, with wounds which still ooze today and keep us locked in false sanctimony. So, though we may have meaning in theory, in practice America is meaningless. Yet this is no weakness, as it frees us of any nationalistic chains. If we only realize that any meanings we conjure are but illusions, we can forgo the burden of continuing any “American legacy” and instead focus on building our future how we want.
Consider: America is meaningless, thus you are meaningless. You can define what being American means to you and follow that meaning unabated. You can be free, brave, or just, but if you so choose you can also be humble, bashful, or kind. And, America is meaningless, thus your fellow Americans are meaningless. They can define what being American means to them and follow that meaning unabated, without interfering and interference from you. They can be humble, bashful or kind, but if they so choose they can also be free, brave, or just. This is our future, if we collectively abandon a strict definition of what it means to be American. This is our future, if we allow each of us to find meaning in America however we wish. This is our future: a nation full of potential, but to meet our potential requires the full nation.