Don't Call This Country "America"
How the name was hijacked and why it matters today
by Elizabeth (Betita) Martinez, courtesy of Z Magazine
If ever there was a time to break the habit of calling this country “America,” as if no other nations existed in this hemisphere, it is in the current era of Permanent War and arrogant empire-building.
If ever there was a time for people in this white-dominated super-power to reject its racist contempt for 20 other American countries that happen to be of color, it is right now as Bush charges from one racist war to another.
If ever there was a time when all of us need to expose the denial of truth, the hidden histories of crimes against humanity by the U.S., it is today when monumental lies have become the real weapons of mass destruction.
Denial of truth goes far back in our history. As a result, even the most consistent radicals and leftists often don’t see how they are trapped in a culture of domination that says: if you can define the meaning of something, you can hide other meanings. Thus the United States has been made “America” and “Las Americas”—the whole, inter-related hemisphere—is an irrelevant, non-existent concept.
The culture of domination began here when European colonists liquidated the original, native (Iroquois) name for North America, “Turtle Island,” along with the indigenous peoples themselves. Where did “America” come from? The standard Western explanation is that German geographer Martin Waldseemiller suggested in a 1507 book that Columbus’s recent so-called discovery be named after the navigator’s friend, Amerigo Vespucci. You can find a 1570 map of the Western Hemisphere labelled, in Latin, “America or the New World, A New Description.”
Renowned Native American scholar Jack Forbes of the University of Califonia at Davis, says: not so. His extensive research, has revealed that long before the 1500s the name Maraca, Amaracapa, and even Amerikamique, could be found for an area stretching from the Caribbean to Venezuela to Brazil. One old map showed an island, later the land-mass of Nicaragua, marked Tierra Maraka. So much for Vespucci.
Just how and when “America” may have evolved from those indigenous names remains unknown. But we do know that whatever its exact history, under Spanish and Portuguese rule, the name came to represent invasion and bloody conquest for native peoples. To insist that one country should not steal the name America for itself alone does not mean the name is without fault.
The 13 colonies seem to have used “America” primarily for themselves. A poem entitled “America: or a Poem on the Settlement of the British Colonies,” published in New Haven, Conn. in 1770 proclaimed triumphantly
“Hail Land of light and joy!
Thy power shall grow…thy glory shall extend,
And savage nations at thy scepter bend.”
An essay published that same year declared “America hath a fair prospect in a few centuries of ruling both in arts and arms.” Still more poets and essayists sang the same song for the future of “America” as emperor of the earth. All those writings were early steps toward hijacking the name, and suggest the linguistic imperialism yet to come. In 1823, the Monroe Doctrine told Europe, “hands off those newly independent countries of Latin America.” Twenty years later, the cry of Manifest Destiny sounded across the land, proclaiming that “it is the manifest destiny of the Anglo-Saxon race to people this vast continent” and replace “the inferior races” (like those “savage nations”). As for the Mexicans, “their nationality shall cease.”
Manifest Destiny Triumphs
In this spirit, the U.S. seized almost half of what had become Mexico by military force in 1846-48, making it almost one third of the United States. Those years saw a newly intense patriotism flourish. The U.S. flag was suddenly everywhere, manufactured by the thousands for the first time, as historian Cecilia O’Leary tells us in her book To Die For: The Paradox of American Patriotism.
Five decades later, 1898, the U.S. scooped up Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Guam. With the empire thus consolidated, says Dr. Forbes, calling the United States “America” locked in firmly. The concept of Manifest Destiny recognized no limits and is more alive than ever today. Indeed, the White House globalizes it.
It is Manifest Destiny that calls this nation “America,” thus denying any serious existence to over 550 million human beings who stretch across 7,785,000 square miles. For Latinos/as here and abroad, calling this country “America” is offensive. Perhaps unintentional, but offensive. We should all ask ourselves: do we really want to approve that racist, imperialist worldview by using the empire’s name for itself?
As one of our neighbors, most Canadians do not call the U.S. “America.” Neither do most Latin Americans living in their countries. Inside the U.S., we find a wide range of people at all levels of society, of all colors, all political stands, all doing it. We expect mainstream academics and political scientists, business leaders, and the mass media to practice the imperial habit. But left-leaning journalists and scholars, anti-imperialist activists, and radical college students also call this country “America” without thinking.
The habit is so entrenched that, for example, you can protest the usage one, two, three times at a meeting of progressives or even leftists, and it’s as if no one ever heard you. Like this:
Speaker #1: “America has been moving to the right ever since…”
Speaker #2: “Please don’t call this country “America,” it’s just one part of a whole continent.
Speaker #3: “Reagan’s election showed how America was ready to turn…”
And so it goes. How is this possible? Leaving aside rightwing ideologues and self-styled “patriots,” for most people such stubborn, unyielding usage comes from deep-rooted, unthinking habit sustained by all our social institutions. It also rests largely on the connection between “America” and “American.” There is no English word specifically for a person of the United States, such as Spanish offers with the word estadouidense (roughly speaking, United Statesian). Lacking such a term, we say “American.” The people of the U.S. are perfectly correct in calling themselves “Americans” but they usually forget that everyone else in the hemisphere is also an American.
That unilateral, exclusionary worldview goes along with a racist worldview. “American” as a term of group identification is loaded with privilege. Immigrants of color are made to understand from the start that “you’re not a real American.” Perhaps, you can become one of those hyphenated Americans and yes, you may become a citizen; yes, you may be able to vote like any other “American.” But does the white family next door see you as a “real American”?
The Colonized Mentality Prevails
For all the talk about “diversity,” the reality remains: in most U.S. eyes, the norm for “American” is white. Thus many people of color go on hoping to be treated as “real” Americans who belong in “America”—meaning the USA. In that hope, we unite with a name that reflects a worldview both imperialist and racist.
It is no surprise, then, that so many peoples of color, both immigrant and native-born, call this country “America.” Chinese Americans say “America” as if forgetting how the Gold Mountain has cheated, despised, and lynched them. People from India—even well-to-do professionals—seem to forget their own centuries of being colonized when they give the U.S. full colonial rights by calling it “America.” And you can certainly find Latino immigrants obliterating a long history of direct and indirect U.S. domination of their countries with their acceptance of the A-word. Nowhere is this internalized repression clearer than among Chicanos, a people of color born directly from U.S. colonialism. Our struggle against what many call the colonized mentality has been long, painful, and has not yet ended. The very word “Chicano/a” was a historic blow struck against self-definition with that old-style, hyphenated term Mexican-American. The Chicano movement of the 1960s and early 1970s targeted the colonized mentality as a major obstacle to liberation and today’s youth also speak out against it as internalized oppression.
As long as Chicanos go on calling the United States “America,” the struggle against that mentality is needed. Chicanos/as and all Raza need to be taking a much stronger stand today. Any community’s rejection of “America” as the name for this one country may be called a struggle against the colonized mentality.
The Complexity Of “African-American”
Among African Americans, the “America” habit is more complex. On one side we find the angry words of Tony Morrison, who wrote in her book Playing in the Dark, that in this country “American means white…” She goes on to speak of how “Africanist people struggle to make the term applicable to themselves with ethnicity and hyphen after hyphen after hyphen…” In a country plagued by profound racism, being “American” thus becomes desirable even though the term “America” is in effect a slave name for this country, used by whites to affirm their power over peoples of color.
On the other side we see how the name has often been summoned by eloquent leaders like Langston Hughes, Martin Luther King, and others for its promise of equality. Malcolm X also said “America” in fierce anger at its two-faced history but still affirming its promise. Today even Mumia Abu-Jamal uses it. For African Americans, as one black observer has said, the word is more of a concept than a name. Its usage reflects a desire to be recognized as rightful owners of this enforced homeland.
“Who is an American?” becomes the question, and who should better be recognized as an American than those whose labor first made the nation’s growth possible? In this sense, “America” meaning the U.S. remains the symbol of a bloodstained history but it has also become a demand that must be affirmed. We do not hear “America” said with Malcolm X’s rage the same way we hear it when uttered with George Bush fanfare. When many of us wrote the name as “Amerikkka” in the early 1970’s, we also were replacing its imperialist assumptions with a defiant cry for truth.
The Media Play The Name Game
The Great Name Robbery is sustained by the media, especially the mainstream print media. Some tend to stick with “United States” in straight news articles but not in headlines. Opinion writing opens the door wide to “America” (the word turned up 42 times in a single New York Times Sunday Magazine article this year). “America” for the U.S. is often used in a rhetorical way, eliciting a certain emotional response by its evocation of “God Bless America,” “America the Beautiful,” and other references deemed patriotic.
Such usage comes as no surprise. Unfortunately, progressive and even left publications also succumb to the habit. In These Times, the Progressive, Z, Left Turn, and a few others do much better than most. But “Letter to America” is the headline on an otherwise excellent interview with a German professor in the Nation. (Speaking of that weekly, why does our sharp-eyed columnist Alexander Cockburn persist with the A word?) Then we find the front cover of the February 2003 issue of Mother Jones announcing the lead story with the words “Lone rider: How Bush’s Imperial Doctrine Pits America Against the World.” Its lead editorial also used “America” for the United States three times, not including quoted remarks.
As for progressive radio, even Pacifica does it, and among media celebrities even gutsy Michael Moore occasionally slips.
All this is not a call for the Terminology Police to comb every sentence in every magazine for the A-word. It is not a demand to prohibit any stylized use of that name to make a political point, as in “corporate America.” It is not a declaration of war on the word American as applied to nationals or products of this country. At the same time, we need to avoid “American” as an adjective when possible (and use U.S. instead). We need to avoid it energetically when such usage is extremely U.S.-centric and exclusionary, as in “People for the American Way.” Whose “American” way, indeed? All in all, we just need to think more about our unconscious, imperialist mindset or, to borrow an important concept from Mills College scholar Margo Okasawa Rey, our internalized U.S.-nationism.
This article is also a call to think about the many ways that the habit of equating one country with an entire hemisphere promotes a harmful worldview. That worldview includes a tendency among liberals and radicals to ignore or minimize America south of the border. Unless, of course, it presents some militant people’s struggle as in Cuba, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala, or Chiapas, at which point La Raza leaps into radical fashion.
It is no accident that scholars and journalists who write regularly about Latin America, like Susanne Jonas and James Petras, do not call the U.S. “America.” Looking at the world through Latin American eyes can encourage us all to kick the “America” habit. If we refuse to do so, we will not understand the political, economic, and social forces at work there. We will remain blind to the mobilization of thousands for land and justice, the upheavals in progress today, the deep rooted dream called Bolivarism with its promise of uniting to transform Las Americas.
Latin America is in a new stage of potentially anti-imperialist change. In Brazil, leftist working-class leader Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva was elected President last October with vast support. In Ecuador, campesinos, native organizations, and workers recently elected the country’s first indigenous President, Lucio Gutierrez, over the nation’s richest man. In Bolivia, indigenous people are rising up. The forces standing with President Hugo Chavez resisted a Chile-1973 type of coup in Venezuela accompanied by a massive, ongoing media campaign against him.
El Salvador saw sweeping leftist victories in its March, 2003 elections. In Chiapas, the indigenous movement that exploded in 1994 survives despite brutal repression. Argentina struggles with severe economic problems but is seeing new faces taking to the streets. Escalation of the Colombian conflict has set one of Latin America’s bloodiest examples of repression, with U.S. support, but without ending resistance. The continent bristles with widespread opposition to the FTAA (Free Trade Area Agreement, in English).
These are times of grave difficulty, internal contradictions and unpredictable developments but also widespread hope for fundamental change. The existence of worldwide resistance against the globalization of neo-liberalism strengthens that dream. Powerful new waves are rocking ancient shores.
How, then, can we say nothing when the name America is used for a nation whose history shows no respect for the rest of the hemisphere? How can we, especially on the left, not make an effort to find respectful substitutes for that use of “America,” such as plain United States or USA ?
When an adjective is needed for objects or ideas, “U.S.” should do. For people, let’s use a phrase like “people from the U.S.” or “U.S. nationals” (and beware of “citizens”). Perhaps there are times when using “American” for people seems necessary to avoid literary awkwardness, but at least we should remember that a Salvadoran or Bolivian or Chilean is also an American. At a time of raging unilateralism by the U.S., the least we can do as its opponents is insist on showing respect for multilateralism, for our neighbors with whom we share the same enemies. That includes, of course, recognizing the diversity of the African diaspora in Latin America that creates Afro-Latinos among the Americans.
Let our campañeros/as to the south also insist more loudly on calling themselves Americans. They would do well to remember that one of the first acts by those who initiated Mexico’s war of independence against Spain in 1810 was to abolish slavery in Mexico, saying with amazing foresight: “todos los americanos debían ser iguales”—all Americans should be equal.
A Final Thought
In the end, refusing to misuse “America” is not just a matter of political correctness. Such refusal is indeed politically correct but it should come from our hearts, too. “America,” a name imposed by European conquest, is also a beautiful word. Its syllables roll out with a fine cadence, its vowels and consonants harmonize happily. Can we not use it with love and respect for all its peoples, all their centuries of struggle and creativity, all the hopes of a hemisphere that are wrapped up in that one word when used truthfully—America?
A social justice activist for over 40 years, Elizabeth (Betita) Martinez has published 6 books on struggles in Las Americas, taught Women’s Studies, currently directs the Institute for MultiRacial Justice in San Francisco and is an editor of War Times.Category: Identity