The quest to define the true essence of US identity dates back to colonial times, long before the nation itself was formally established. Yet, scholars traditionally situate the first explicit investigation into what constitutes an American citizen in J. Hector St. John de Crèvecœur’s Letters from an American Farmer (1782). The third of the titular letters, aptly named “What is an American,” offers a list of features that de Crèvecœur considered quintessential to Americanness: industry, freedom, individualism, equality, assimilation. All these elements converged in what later became known as American exceptionalism, a doctrine that undergirded (and, to an extent, still undergirds) most, if not all, of US foreign policy.
De Crevecoeur’s essay also introduced the concept of the ‘melting pot’ to describe the yearned-for-homogeneity of a nation aspiring to merge the different cultures informing it, rather than to preserve their differences. Ever since, the United States has strived to present a solid front against the rest of the world, returning time and time again to the defining features of its citizens, and to what sets them apart from their European counterparts. Yet, over the past few decades, it has become evident that internal divisions and differences are increasing, rather than decreasing. While the national narrative of the United States insists on advocating the exceptionality of its people, it is also continuously confronted by the hard truth of their lived experiences (Sieber 2005; Hodgson 2009; Grandin 2019; Spragg 2019).
A kind of internal splintering is especially noticeable in the polarization of contemporary public discourse and in the way it has exposed a country fractured into factions and bitter divisions across identity lines. Long overdue civil, political, and social rights battles have radicalized most public debates, from racial issues connected to voting rights and disenfranchisement (e.g., the long fight to ensure voting rights to African Americans, from the birth of the NAACP at the beginning of the twentieth century to the recent Fair Fight Action movement) to questions of representation and cultural appropriation (e.g., the debate surrounding Jeanine Cummins’s 2020 novel American Dirt, Scarlett Johansson’s casting as a Japanese character in the 2017 movie Ghost in the Shell, or the controversial use of fashion and hairstyles belonging to different cultures, as in the case of Katy Perry’s performance at the 2013 American Music Awards or Justin Bieber’s latest hair-dos).
Furthermore, the United States has always been on the lookout for an enemy that would reinforce its own identity. During the American Frontier expansion, such figure was embodied by Native people living on conquered lands. Later on, a similar antagonistic mechanism was fueled by the animosity against Germany, sparked during the first global conflict and exacerbated during WWII. During the Cold War, the role of the archenemy was then played by the “Commies'' and,after the turn of the century, by “Arab terrorists.” Yet, despite its readiness to intervene on the international military stage and to single out an enemy that could function as its archetypal rival, the United States has also long been fractured by visceral internal fights. More than ever, after the January 6, 2021 attacks on the Capitol, an especially American tradition of domestic violence—spanning from the Civil War to the Civil Rights Movement—has taken center stage, leading to a reckoning that the enemy oftentimes lies within the nation itself.
This issue of JAm It! seeks contributions that address how different iterations of real and/or symbolic internal enemies have been generated and represented in US culture. Further, we invite reflections on how, on the level of policy, discourse, and societal dynamics, such internal divisions have been flattened out for the sake of a uniform—rather than united—nation. Finally, to encourage a nuanced and balanced understanding of the topic, we also welcome contributions that highlight how fractures and differences, as well as the very need for a real or imagined internal enemy, have had virtuous outcomes in US history and its formation.