“I Want My Country Back” and Exclusionary Visions of America

Uncle Sam's Thanksgiving DinnerUncle Sam's Thanksgiving Dinner. G.F. Keller, San Francisco Wasp, 1877 (Photo: Bancroft Library)

“You rape our women, and you’re taking over our country, and you have to go,” Charleston terrorist Dylann Roof allegedly said to his victims during his shooting spree. Roof’s nonsensical rape remark (particularly since six of his nine victims were women themselves) has rightly drawn a good deal of attention, and has been effectively contextualized as part of the long history of white fears of African American rapists. But I would argue that “you’re taking over our country” represents an even more telling phrase, one that echoes longstanding national narratives and has become prominent once again in conservative discourse over the last decade.

Writers and leaders working to imagine a unifying American identity have consistently felt the need to define “America” against others seeking to “take it over.” Such definitions based on fearful contrasts pre-date the nation’s political origins, as illustrated by Ben Franklin’s 1751 fears that the colony of Pennsylvania, “founded by the English, [might] become a colony of aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them.” While Franklin’s personal opinions changed over subsequent decades, such nativist fears of immigrants taking over and remaking the nation drove a number of prominent Early Republic political and social debates: the 1798 Alien and Sedition Acts, which created a new legal category of “Alien Enemies”; the 1840s rise of the Know Nothing Party, with its conspiracy theories about Irish immigrants and “Papists”; and the evolving 19th century narrative of a “Yellow Peril” composed of Chinese arrivals and communities, which culminated in the passage of the nation’s first immigration laws, the 1875 Page Act and 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act.

While these exclusionary fears and visions of America have often been directed at immigrant groups, they have likewise included African Americans in a prominent role. Note for example the paragraph in Thomas Jefferson’s initial draft of the Declaration of Independence that turns the horrors of African slavery into another complaint against the King, arguing that “he is now exciting those very [enslaved] people to rise in arms among us.” Jefferson does describe the slave trade as “former crimes committed against the liberties of one people,” but focuses on fears of how this African American presence might now aid the King through the “crimes which he urges them to commit against the [colonists’] lives.” Defining African Americans as outside American identity has always been a fundamentally contradictory and hypocritical practice, but Jefferson here offers a template: recognizing the brutality of what has happened to this community, yet implying that as a result the community can exist only as a hostile, oppositional force within the nation. And in his Notes on the State of Virginia (1785) Jefferson extends that logic, admitting that slavery is a moral evil but arguing that the only solution is for freed slaves to be “colonized to such place” that better suits them, so as to avoid “convulsions which will probably never end but in the extermination of the one or the other race.”

That construction of African Americans as outside of and in opposition to American national identity developed fully in the Reconstruction period, with its narrative that African American liberty and progress represented a fundamental threat to an overarching American community. That narrative was first deployed by the nascent Ku Klux Klan and its fellow southern partisans, but over the subsequent decades the nation’s political and social sympathies came to align with this perspective. This process culminated in the argument, represented in the first American blockbuster film, that a new “Birth of a Nation” required a corresponding defeat of African Americans and their supporters: a defeat represented, in the film’s climactic triumph, as a heroic Ku Klux Klan ride to save the white protagonists by killing the African American villains and their allies. In the film’s final images, that violence is complemented by an equally necessary and heroic act of unconstitutional exclusion, with armed vigilantes “protecting” the ballot box from African Americans seeking to exercise their 15th Amendment right to vote.

Shortly after that film’s release, the nation’s political and legal landscape came to reflect these exclusionary narratives and extend them much further than at any prior moment in our history. Building on the Chinese Exclusion Act and its creation of national immigration law, and on the early 20th century arguments for eugenics and racial purity, the 1920s Quota Acts created a new legal narrative of American identity, one in which communities were included or excluded based overtly on ethnicity and race. Supporting the 1924 Quota Act on the floor of the Senate, South Carolina Senator Ellison Durant Smith argued, “Thank God we have in America perhaps the largest percentage of any country in the world of the pure, unadulterated Anglo-Saxon stock…and it is for the preservation of that splendid stock that has characterized us that I would make this not an asylum for the oppressed of all countries.” Smith’s image of an ideal, threatened Anglo-Saxon purity echoed quite precisely the fears of race mixing and rape that justified Jim Crow segregation and the lynching epidemic.

The exclusionary attitudes of Jim Crow and the Quota Acts extend into our current century. People who chanted “I want my country back!” at town hall meetings after President Barack Obama’s election were extending traditional exclusionary narratives of American identity. Many older Americans grew up in an America that had turned these longstanding exclusionary attitudes into an all-encompassing legal and social system, an overarching association of “American” with “white European.” Having come of age in that most exclusionary national period, these Americans likely perceive the social movements and demographic changes of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century as opposed to their vision of American identity, and saw those changes embodied by someone they saw as a “Muslim,” “foreign-born,” and, of course, black president.

Dylann Roof’s horrific actions suggest that these exclusionary attitudes have also been passed down to younger generations, and that the battle between exclusion and inclusion in America still has far to go. It needs every voice that can remind us of this longstanding history and argue for a more inclusive vision.

About the Author

Ben Railton

Ben Railton is Associate Professor of English and Coordinator of American Studies at Fitchburg State University. He's working to create public American Studies scholarship and to impact our collective memories and narratives, as evidenced by his books (most recently The Chinese Exclusion Act: What It Can Teach Us about America), his daily AmericanStudies blog, and many other ongoing projects.

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