Memorial Day soon will lead us into the patriotic holiday season, with Independence Day fast approaching. July will dawn, once again, with flags, explosives, picnics and celebrations of nationhood.
That special artwork will show up again, too, depicting the mythical character who aims to keep us loyal: The tall, distinguished, stern-faced man with a short beard, a tall hat, and a red, white and blue flag-like vest. He stares and often points his finger at us, reminding us to do our duty: “I want you to vote!” or “Support our troops!” or, even, “I want you!” when recruiting for military service. His commanding image represents the supreme power of the land, but he’s defined as our personal relative, good old “Uncle Sam.”
The founding fathers, who designed our post-Revolutionary government, limited citizenship, initially, to landowning “white” males, then expanded it to “white” people generally — leaving it to the courts to define who was “white,” since no one’s skin seemed free of some coloration. The resulting national personality, created by cartoonists, obviously had to be a tall, “white” guy with a top hat, a goatee and a scowl on his face. He personified the “white” supremacist system that governed this country.
There have been some changes, albeit not as many as some of us would like, but our nation has become much more diverse. Just more than six and a half years ago, we even elected a president with an African father. That acknowledged, socially and politically, a much different U.S. citizenry than the founders conceptualized.
Today, men — and women, too — of African, Asian and Latino as well as European heritage are not only here and able to vote, but sometimes in important leadership roles. The 2016 presidential nomination race emerging includes among the candidates women in both major parties and a man of African descent in the more conservative party. The historic political mysticism, viewed in our modern social context, seems to beg of cartoonists and editorialists some fresh imagination about our most popular national symbol. Somehow, to a socially aware citizen, Uncle Sam seems obsolete.
So how might the symbol be modified? Or, more appropriately, how might it be expanded?
“Sam” is familiar and, to the patriot, the name seems to suggest “so American,” but Sam needs a family now, to acknowledge us all.
It shouldn’t be hard to accomplish. As a starter, “Sam” is a name that could fit a woman as well as a man, so our uncle could easily have a twin sister, Aunt Sam. Acknowledging modern, interracial family formations, “Sam” could also apply to a person with African, Asian, Latino or Arabic roots, especially if seen as a “nickname” or accompanied by a second name. So perhaps we could have a dozen national symbols, uncles and aunts of various facial features and colors, with associated names from several ethnic derivations, all as part of the Sam family.
Different generations should be acknowledged as well, symbolizing millennials, Xers, boomers, et al. The reconstructed Sam family might be portrayed more often with pleasant expressions, too, depicting some satisfaction, even joy, about living in a republic.
The Sam family might even remind us how open we sometimes say we are to refugees and immigrants, lending some credibility to Lady Liberty’s invitation to all of the world to “give me your huddled masses … yearning to breathe free.” It might affirm our claim to be a multicultural democracy. The Sam family might even begin to suggest to people who don’t look “white” that they, too, are welcome, respected and entitled to full citizenship in this slowly transforming system.
Louis Stanley Schoen, of St. Louis Park, is a semiretired consultant/facilitator on racial justice who has served nationally in the Episcopal Church and locally in the Twin Cities.