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I, too, am America.
— Langston Hughes, “I, Too” from The Weary Blues, 1926
The preamble to the United States Constitution, begins with the phrase “We, the People…” This phrase has become synonymous with the definition of an American identity. Despite its inclusive appearance “We, the People” was employed as an exclusionary tactic. The phrase indicated an incorporation into a larger American identity while, for generations, ignoring significant groups of people who contributed to, sustained, and influenced American society. Today, “We, the People” has evolved into an inclusive statement of the history and experiences of people within in the United States.
The 2023 conference theme “I, too, am America” is inspired by Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes’s 1926 poem “I, Too” where he stakes his claim on the evolving promise of an inclusive nation by stating “I, too, am America.” His demand tests the promise of the preamble. His poem demonstrates that, despite the country’s segregated society and exclusion of Blacks from the American identity, as a Black man, Hughes was also an American. The 2023 AASLH Annual Conference theme draws on the broadening concept of American identity that is found in Making History At 250: The Field Guide for the Semiquincentennial.
“I, Too, Am America,” evokes an inclusive definition of America which expands beyond citizenship documentation to everyone who lives, works, and contributes to American society regardless of legal status. “I, Too, Am America” applies to all people: Black, White, Asian, Latinx, Indigenous, LGBTQ+, men, women, nonbinary individuals, adults, teens, children, the elderly, immigrants, undocumented individuals, poor and low income, non-native English speakers, multi-lingual people, high school graduates, college students, K – 12 students, the formerly incarcerated, the incarcerated, East coast, West coast, South, Southwest, Midwest and all variations in between. “I, Too, Am America,” is a bold statement looking at the past, present, and future states of being an American, how we interpret American history, and our evolving audience.
In the countdown to country’s 250th anniversary, we are forced to wrestle with our collective identity. Our 2023 conference is a call for an engaging examination of identity through creativity, innovation, and compelling discussion. Questions we should consider are:
Boise, Idaho will serve as the location for this discussion. The city has seen significant growth and change in the last decade. In 2019, Boise was the second-fastest growing metro area in the nation. The city’s longstanding commitment as an inviting place to all has resulted it welcoming over 800 new citizens each year from over 20 foreign countries. Idaho is home to five federally recognized tribes—the Kootenai, Coeur d’Alene, Nez Perce, Shoshone Paiute, and Shoshone Bannock—whose history and culture can be seen throughout the state. The state’s distinct and rugged landscape and the city of Boise’s incorporation of urban and outdoor landscape urge us to consider the influence of changing landscapes on our work, identity, and community. Idaho’s land, which transcends nearly 700 miles from its north at the Canadian border to its southern neighbor Utah, has significantly shaped the culture and character of its people. Home to the second largest Basque population in North America, Boise reminds us of the influence and culture that various groups bring to our communities.
“I, Too, Am America” means that we must consider all parts of the country and all people within the country. It is a demand echoing throughout history and reverberating within Idaho’s history. From women’s suffrage in 1896 to the Native American struggle for civil and human rights to the preservation and interpretation of Japanese internment camps to the ever-evolving demographics, Idaho reflects the ongoing discussion of American identity. Join us in Boise as we gather and explore our collective identity.
Dr. Noelle Trent
Director of Interpretation, Collections, and Education, National Civil Rights Museum
2023 Annual Conference Program Chair