Book Jeff


Following up on last week’s article on The American Adventure, I want to continue that theme while we sit in the patriotic season between Memorial Day and the 4th of July. This week, let’s explore when it means for each of us to be an American and how that impacts our own “American Adventure.”

When I teach American History, I always start with this question, “What does it mean to be an American?” In today’s politically charged times, this is a difficult question, but it has always been a difficult question. Yes, Americans have come from different locations, but we have also landed in different locations. Life in colonial New England looked nothing like life in the antebellum Deep South. Four hundred years later, people living on the East Coast have a very different “American” experience than those living on the West Coast.

As I was making this point one semester in Arizona, an Army First Sergeant sitting in the first row raised his hand and agreed with me 100 percent. “You are so right, Dr. Barnes. There is no single definition of what it means to be an American. For that matter, my wife and I both grew up in Florida, and the two of us cannot even agree on what it means to be a Floridian.”

Given that I, too, am from Florida, my ears piqued up as he continued, “You see, I am from Jacksonville. Jacksonville is a real city. Why, we even have a National Football League team, the Jacksonville Jaguars.” Given their deplorable record, I was tempted to debate the legitimacy of calling the Jaguars an “NFL team,” but, for once, I held my tongue.

“My wife, however, comes from the panhandle. The panhandle is verydifferent from the rest of Florida.” Being that I, too, hail from the panhandle, now the First Sergeant really had me listening. “Compared to the metropolis that is Jacksonville, my wife comes from the most pedestrian, parochial, and Podunk town you can possibly imagine. You wouldn’t believe how backwards those people are, Dr. Barnes. And yet, she is always saying we are both ‘from Florida.’”

Curious, I inquired further, “First Sergeant, what is the name of the small town your wife is from?”

“Oh, you and the rest of the class wouldn’t have ever heard of it, Dr. Barnes. Not all the way out here in Arizona,” he responded.

“Try me,” I urged.

“Well, she comes from this place just outside of Fort Walton Beach. A little town called Niceville.”

“First Sergeant, before you say another word, I think it best that I share with you, and the rest of our class, that I am a graduate of Niceville Senior High School in Niceville, Florida.”

The First Sergeant sat in stunned silence. The rest of the class could not believe the coincidence. What are the odds? they wondered. The next day, I brought in my Niceville Senior High School diploma from May 1981—what we historians like to call a “primary source document.”

Knowing what it means to be a leader is about as easy as knowing what it means to be an American. Everyone has a different definition. What I do know is that being an American has never been about where you are from. America is about where you are going. The same is true for leadership. When leading, people don’t care about where you’ve been—past credentials, past experiences, past exploits. What they care about is their future—and as much as Walt Disney was patriotic about the past, he was equally fervent about moving forward into the future. A future that included an Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow where, according to Walt, “the people will be king.”

As we reflect on what it means to be an American and how our unique backgrounds shape our perspectives, I’d love to hear from you. What does being an American mean to you? How do your personal experiences influence your understanding of this identity? Share your thoughts and stories and let’s continue this conversation as we learn from each other’s journeys.

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