Diversity and the Definition of America

Anamaria Santiago currently teaches literature and composition courses at UAB. She has been on staff at Anytown Alabama for numerous years and was honored to serve as an Anytown Alabama co-director this year.

I love teaching early American literature because in studying these texts, I am reminded that our country remains constantly under construction, and students realize that the questions that so addled our country’s early imagination still resonate with us today. We still grapple with the implications of the elusive American Dream, and we’re still dealing with the legacy of slavery and what it means to live as Winthrop’s “city upon a hill.” From Bradford to Bradstreet and Franklin to Crèvecouer, one of the most resounding concerns of early writers was the definition of America. One of the best moments I have with a class is when they realize that even the earliest conceptions of America, those of “our beloved founding fathers,” were not always clearly or consistently articulated, but often fraught with contradictions.
Soledad O’Brien, noted journalist, documentarian and producer, came to UAB as part of Hispanic Heritage Month to share her own history and give her audience a little insight into what drives her as a storyteller. In her talk, titled “Diversity: On TV, Behind the Scenes, and In Our Lives,” O’Brien asked these same fundamental questions, punctuating her short vignettes with “What does America mean?” and “Who are we and what do we value?”
O’Brien, whose mother is Afro-Cuban and father is Australian, grew up in what she says was a very unconventional household. Her parents, living in Baltimore in the 1950s, could not legally marry, so they married in D.C. and essentially lived illegally as an interracial couple with six children. Because her parents successfully defied social and political conventions, O’Brien has been able to navigate the world virtually invulnerable to naysayers who criticize her ambitions because of her status as a woman and racial minority. 
Not only has O’Brien achieved award-winning success, but she continues to push the boundaries of our nation’s self-conception through media. She is actively engaged in whose stories are represented and how. In this sense, her work almost approaches the political. For instance, during her talk, she shared a film clip from her series Latino in America (check out Black in America and Gay in America, too) in which Marlen Esparza, a Mexican-American Olympic medalist in the women’s boxing category, shares her dreams and fears as an athlete. Esparza’s immigration story, though mentioned briefly, isn’t central to the film’s narrative. Instead, O’Brien works to capture Esparza as a nuanced person who just happens to have an immigrant parent. In doing so, O’Brien implicitly contextualizes the immigration debate in human terms.
This project is especially important in our media culture, which often prefers to reduce complex conflicts to just “two sides” or people to caricatures rather than capture their shared humanity. Embracing diverse, multi-dimensional voices is also central to our Birmingham community as we continue to celebrate 50 Years Forward. We can acknowledge that remembering the past is important, but our self-definition does not have to root itself in what has always been, because if we dig deep enough, we realize that we’ve never really known precisely what this American experiment means. We’re still writing our story. 
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Diversity and the Definition of America