Wednesday, April 20, 2016
April 20, 2016: 21st Century Patriots: Deepa Iyer
[For this year’s series on genuine American patriots, I wanted to focus on contemporary figures who are doing the hard work of patriotism. If there’s a through-line to these four, in addition to the ideas I discussed in my Patriot’s Day post, it’d be Howard Zinn’s famous quote, “Dissent is the highest form of patriotism.” Please share your own patriotic nominees, dissenters or otherwise, for a crowd-sourced weekend post we can all be proud of!]
On a wonderful new book that deserves to reference one of the greatest American poems.
My main goal for this post isn’t anything I can write myself; instead, it’s to point you to Deepa Iyer’s We Too Sing America: South Asian, Arab, Muslim, and Sikh Immigrants Shape Our Multiracial Future (2015). Combining historical and sociological analysis, interviews and oral histories, and autoethnographic storytelling, Iyer has created a unique and vital book that is a must-read for all Americans. (It would make a particularly interesting companion to a book I reviewed last year, Zareena Grewal’s Islam is a Foreign Country.) Get it, read it, share it, and see if you can attend or even help organize one of the book talks through which Iyer is extending, amplifying, and adding to the book’s stories and effects.
So that’s the main thing I wanted to say, and the main reason why Iyer has become a model for me not only of writing and public scholarship but also of genuine 21st century patriotism. But I can’t write about a book that paraphrases in its title Langston Hughes’ “I, Too,” on (if not indeed atop) the short list of my favorite American poems, and not say a bit about that connection as well. There’s a lot that I love about Hughes’ poem, including its teachability (I have brought it into at least four different courses and have had one of our best discussions each and every time) and its deceptive simplicity (those five short stanzas, the first and last only one line each; and yet we’ve never run out of things to say). But what I love most (and this won’t be a surprise to anyone who has read the prior posts about my fourth book project) is Hughes’ critical optimism, the way his poem engages directly with some of our darkest American histories and realities yet comes through (not in spite of, but through) them to the joyful hope of “they’ll see how beautiful I am” and the closing hopeful certainty of “I, too, am America.” Iyer’s book manages that same balance, achieves that same critical optimism, and I can’t imagine a more inspiring and vital component to 21st century patriotism.
Next patriot tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other figures you’d nominate?