Mark Naison had never seen New York as united as it was in the months following 9/11.
American flags, which he previously only saw fluttering on the doorsteps of privileged white families, were lining largely African American blocks in East New York and Brownsville. And the Puerto Rican, Dominican and West Indian flags that dotted large swaths of the Bronx were joined by the stars and stripes.
“[There] was an idea that [the terrorists] attacked us precisely because of our diversity — that America was a place where people of different races and religions and nationalities could live together,” said Naison, a history professor at Fordham University.
But that was 10 years ago, before two controversial wars, economic catastrophe, and growing political divides rattled the nation. This weekend, as we celebrate the 235th birthday of the United States, what it means to be an American is hardly as clear as it seemed after 9/11. Indeed, to hear some observers put it, the definition has never been more fuzzy — or subject to individual expression.
Upper West Side artist Steve Alpert, 59, said he feels more patriotic now than at any point in his life. He lived through the “confusion and rancor” of the Vietnam War, which “made me question who I was as an American,” he recalled.
But all that changed on 9/11.
“The events of Sept. 11 ... awakened the inner patriot [in me] that had been dormant up until then,” Alpert said.
In June 2007, he visited wounded soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., to thank them for their service.
“I never served in uniform — I regret that,” Alpert said. In the past eight years, he has created military-inspired paintings that he has donated to raise money for veteran charities.
For everyone like Alpert, there is someone like Allan Stevo, who calls America a nation widely viewed as a “pariah.”
“We were once seen as models,” said Stevo, 31, a Chicago native who has been living overseas — most recently in Slovakia — off and on for the past 10 years. But “unwanted” American occupations in the Mideast have soured international opinions of Americans to the point where he doesn’t feel welcome in many corners of the world, he said.
“Being an American used to be something that people emulated and admired,” Stevo said. “But today, being an American means that you bring greed and pain at the point of a gun.”
These divides, however, should be far from cause for despair, observers said; indeed, they are part of what makes us Americans.
"Americans have never fully agreed on what it means to be an American at any time in our history and I don't expect them to do so any time soon,” Naison said. “We have survived with powerful divisions over national identity and we have to figure out how to manage those that are right in front of us."
Hadeel Al Dayeh, 16, an exchange student from Jordan living in Verona, N.J.
Before I came to the U.S., my idea about it was built upon the media and the movies I used to watch. I thought that everyone at school would be mean and not accepting of me, because of TV shows like “Gossip Girls” and movies like “Mean Girls,” which showed the negative sides of high school such as bullying or harassing.
But, when I came here, I found it to be the opposite — people were actually interested to know about Jordan and the way we live, and I made lots of friends. They would ask me to say words in Arabic and asked if you really could float sitting up in the Dead Sea.
Some of them had judgments about people from the Middle East, thinking we rode camels to school or that we didn’t have technology, but all it took was just a little bit of explaining. They were surprised to learn that Jordan is a safe country with many tourists, and that it has a king and queen.
I had some wrong ideas, too. At first, I thought Americans weren’t patriotic. But my host family, the Piros, had an American flag and the words “Proud to be an American” in their house and were always teaching their children to love and respect America.
I learned that America is a very diverse country, with people from all over the world. My host dad is Italian, and kids at school had ancestors from everywhere — Africa, Asia and even the Middle East.
I’ve grown up a lot over the past 10 months, and I’m going home with a new understanding about America and how it’s a great country that appreciates people and their talents. I hope I can come back.
— Hadeel Al Dayeh is part of the U.S. Department of State’s Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study (YES) program, designed to build bridges of understanding between the U.S. and Muslim-majority countries. She has been living with a host family in Verona, N.J., for the past year.
Regina Coyle, 60, of Marine Park, Brooklyn, who lost her son, firefighter James Coyle Jr., in the 9/11 terrorist attacks
I grew up in the 1950s believing everything I heard. I believed in America being the most wonderful country in the world, and I still believe that. I believe Americans are those people that have integrity, honesty and believe in hard work.
I love the fact that we as Americans are unique. We are as different as every country in the world. We may look, dress and speak differently, but together, we are America.
After losing my son, James, an NYC firefighter, on 9/11, I realized more and more how many people in the world are envious of Americans. We lived in a world filled with hope and security. We have so much, and yet we give so much of ourselves to others.
I took my America for granted. My world was a place filled with freedom, justice and peace. I always had a peace of mind, thinking my family would be safe at the end of the day. That was shattered on that September morning.
After 9/11, I saw two different worlds: One was filled with hate and anger at America, and the other was my world — a world that had been brought to its knees. My America was humbled and scared. What was sad was that what made others angry at America was something that all humans should have: We all deserve to live in a world filled with freedom and peace.
After 9/11, I was amazed at the depth of love and concern shown to my family by friends, neighbors and total strangers. During those terrible days, my family was held together by that love and concern. We were so touched reading letters from school children expressing their feelings of pain and loss because of James’ death. Since then, I have tried to find small miracles in my everyday living, and this has helped me deal with our son’s death.
When I walk down Kings Highway, I see my America. I see what makes America great. We can be as different physically and culturally as humanly possible. I realize that this is what America is: A place where we are free to be as different or as similar as we want. We aren’t perfect, but we are who we choose to be. We can work hard, because we have opportunities that are not available elsewhere.
What I now cherish is the freedom that I once took for granted to be who I am and who I want to be. Thank you, America.
— Regina Coyle’s son, James, was a firefighter with Ladder Company 3 in the East Village.
Xian Edwards, 32, an immigrant who lives in the Bronx
There is no greater joy than being able to participate and live in a democratic nation that prides itself on life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Ten years ago, I migrated from the island of Jamaica to the United States of America, and like many other immigrants, I was seeking better economic and educational opportunities.
I was unaware of the diversity and cultural experiences in New York and later learned that this city is truly a “melting pot” where individuals from all parts of the world make up the fabric of this great city. I have grown to appreciate the fiber that makes up this vibrant city. In, fact it is part of what being an American means to me.
The ability to exercise democracy to its full extent and the entitlement to constitutional rights are privileges I earn just by being a citizen of the U.S. It’s unimaginable. I now wait with great anticipation to cast my vote in the next general election and possibly participate in the judicial system. By being a juror, I will be part of this great nation and what it stands for.
For me, being a citizen means a whole lot, but being an American means even more. It is that speech that echoes throughout the streets: “Let democracy reign!”
— Xian Edwards became a U.S. citizen earlier this year and lives in the Williams Bridge section of the Bronx.
Pat Toro Jr., 62, president of the Vietnam Veterans of America, Queens Chapter #32
I was 18 years old when I graduated from high school, and up until that time, I had taken being an American for granted. For me, it wasn’t something that you thought about as you grew up. It was just a part of life.
It wasn’t until I enlisted in the Marine Corps right after high school that I began to understand what it meant to be an American, and to be free. It meant that I stood for something. Putting on the uniform of a Marine, going off to war and helping to defend this country taught me the values of being an American and being free. Though these feelings were shaken due to the treatment I received upon returning from Vietnam, I never lost my patriotic faith.
As I got on with my life, I, like so many others before me, fell into the trap of taking my freedom for granted. It wasn’t until Sept. 11, 2001, that I realized for the first time that being an American made you a target. I had what non-Americans didn’t have: I not only had the right to stand up for what I believed in, but I had the privilege and responsibility to defend that right.
Being an American is sometimes not easy, but it is always an honor.
— Pat Toro Jr. served in the United States Marine Corps from 1967 to 1971, and he fought in the Vietnam War from 1969 to 1970. He is a retired police detective for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.