What it Means to Be American

As we contemplate the inauguration of Barack Obama from here in Kigali, Rwanda, we have been thinking about what it means to us as Americans abroad. We're also seeing what the inauguration means to Africans who are viewing it at a remove, but who may feel for the first time that they have a stake in American politics.

As a result, we are trying to convey to colleagues and partners here in Rwanda what it means to be American, and what Obama's inauguration means to America. At times, we may have struggled to explain this, but I think my friend and co-worker Karen Schmidt -- Deputy Director of the Access Project -- has summed it up. I'm going to let her speak for all of us working on the Project here in Kigali:

Election Day 2006, the day the Democrats regained control of Congress, found me at a lodge in Rwanda's Akagera National Park. Results would not be in until Wednesday morning my time, so I got up early, ordered coffee and parked myself at the bar in front of CNN International, just as Nancy Pelosi was declaring victory.

I jumped and cheered, to the amusement of the Rwandan waiter behind the bar. As I was trying to explain why I was yelling at the TV, the junior senator from Illinois appeared in an interview with Larry King. I pointed to the screen and said, "And this man wants to run for president!"

The waiter looked at me indulgently, as if I were completely out of touch and maybe a little bit slow. "A black man? President? In America?" he said. "I don't think so."

Just last May, in Ethiopia, a passport official asked who I supported in the primaries. "Clinton?" he asked. "Or that Kenyan?" I said I had voted for the Kenyan.

I thought of explaining that Barack Obama is really American -- that, in fact, his story is as American as it gets. But I had a flight to catch, and I was pretty sure the explanation would lead to another one of those looks.

Since 2000, when I started traveling to Africa for my work in public health, it hasn't been easy to be an American abroad. But even harder, surprisingly, is explaining what it means to be an American.

I have tried to explain that, even though my grandparents were immigrants, I am no less American than someone whose family has been here for generations, and no more American than the newest naturalized citizen. As Obama said in his keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, "in no other country on Earth is my story even possible."

But being American doesn't just mean opportunity, even for the "skinny kid with a funny name." It means knowing that, even though our system is imperfect, I can vote for whomever I want and even oppose the government without fear. Being American also means elections will be decided according to the law, without riots or guns. In the United States in 2000, a hotly disputed election was decided by the Supreme Court; in Kenya in 2007, a disputed election led to terrible violence.

When I'm traveling and people ask about my German-sounding name, I usually say, simply, "I'm American -- we're from everywhere!" If they persist, I explain that my people spoke Yiddish, a language based on German. Still, some ask, unsatisfied, "But where are you from?"

Where am I from? I'm from Vilna, Lithuania, where my father's father was born. I'm from the Lower East Side of New York, where my mother's mother arrived in 1905 from Kiev and where her father sold fruit from a cart. I'm from suburban Pittsburgh and the Upper West Side.

Barack Obama is from Kenya, and Kansas, and Hawaii and Chicago, and he'll be a resident of Washington D.C. for the next four or eight years. I would have liked to go back to Rwanda or Kenya or Ethiopia on Inauguration Day. Maybe then I wouldn't have to explain: I could just point to the TV and say: "Look. Listen. This is what it means to be American."