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Philadelphia Reflects On Who Is An American

All this month, NPR's Weekend Edition Sunday has been asking what it has meant to be an American at various times in our nation's history. To answer that question, we've been focusing on one of the country's oldest cities, Philadelphia.

These days, the City of Brotherly Love is a magnet for tourists who come from far and wide to see that history up close. We asked those visitors, and some locals, to tell us, "Who is an American?"

Freedom Of Expression

The answers were as varied as the faces of the people waiting in to line see the Liberty Bell. For Terry Knight of Little Rock, Ark., an American is "a person who believes in right and liberty and justice for all mankind, not just certain people." Leonard Taylor of Springfield, Ill., says an American "tries to take care of his family and tries to do the right thing," while his wife, Ruth, says it's "anyone who's living in this great land."

Some people had a very specific idea. Ed Bezik of Latrobe, Pa., says an American is someone who speaks English. "When you're in this country, you should speak this country's language. We should not have to change to accommodate you," Bezik says.

But for others, the concept is more ambiguous. Clifford Womack is a maintenance supervisor at Independence National Historical Park. He's proud of his work at the park, where he's been for 32 years. Womack is also a firefighter, which has allowed him to travel all over the country. He's fought fires in Washington state and Idaho, where he met American Indians for the first time. He also helped with recovery efforts in New Orleans right after Hurricane Katrina. And he's troubled by some of what he's seen.

"You can look around, and you can still see the poverty that's there, and I question why things cannot be better. To make this country as great as it is, it took a lot of different ethnic groups. It took a lot of people, a lot of sweat, a lot of tears, a lot of blood. So I find that question really hard. How do you nail it down to who is an American?"

Ideals And Perseverance

John Gaskin has lived in West Philadelphia for the past 13 years, but he was born in Trinidad. He thinks "What is an American?" is a better question because it gets at what a person really thinks. Gaskin says Americans have "high standards," though they have a tendency "to look on themselves as being the savior of the world" – even when others might not agree.

Independence Park Ranger Tom Degnen concedes that the United States doesn't always live up to its own ideals. But he says an American is someone who keeps trying anyway.

"It's someone who takes to heart the language in our founding documents," Degnen says. "Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The nation is founded on those principles. We had a hard time living up to them fully. But there has been that effort, and I think an American in the best sense is conscious of that."

With the exception of Independence Hall and a small number of other buildings, there is not much remaining from the city where the Declaration of Independence was signed more than 230 years ago. But Philadelphians – and for that matter, Americans – still strive to live up to those original ideals.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.