America the Beautiful

аI first wrote this piece in May 2002, following the craziness that was 9/11 and its aftermath.а A mere seven years later, America had reinvented herself. Who would have considered the possibility of a black president of the United States? A great number of us, especially as people of color, believed there was hope for us after all.

But here we are again, and I find my beliefs about America being challenged. I hardly know what to make of the current insanity on the home front, with families and neighbors and communities being forced to take sides as we vilify one another. I can only hope that this time our values as Americans, which led me to become a naturalized immigrant, will prevail.а

I posted the original version of this blog in 2015. With just a few edits, I am posting it again as the original message has taken on a new urgency for me.

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I remember my mother tying the American flag to a pole fixed to the wooden railing of our second floor veranda, red white and blue like our Union Jack, except much brighter, with stars as well as stripes.а This was in Jamaica in April 1945.

A curious townswoman in the street below called up, "Why you flying the American flag, ma’am?"

"President Roosevelt died," Mother told her. "He’s the president of America."

That day, our little Jamaican country town was somber, quiet.аI just a child, andаI knew nothing of the great war that would start to wind down in Europe in another month, and in the Pacific just four months later. I only knew that the president of the golden country to the north had died.

The only Americans I knew were the soldiers and airmen at Vernam Field, the U.S. Army Air Force base some miles outside our town. They were tall and confident and full of jokes. Whenever they came into our tavern they would lift me up onto the counter and ply me with American goodies, Hershey and Babe Ruth candy bars. I was only five, and they thought I was cute. The only other American I knew was Father Shanahan, the bigger-than-life Jesuit who was our parish priest.аHe had the same air of confidence as these young soldiers.а

There was something about the Americans of Vernam Field that sparked in me a yearning for that country of self-confident, generous, often rowdy and brash people. They were so different from everyone I knew, and everything I was. In our family, a child – especially a girl -- was to be seen and not heard. There was a side of me that was drawn to their self-assurance, their cockiness, and that sense of knowing who they were and why they were here in this little country town on an island in the middle of the Caribbean.аOr so it appeared to me.аAnd I loved that about them. Then and there, America became the Promised Land for me.

I also thought all Americans were white, until the day a soldier came to introduce himself to our family.аHe was probably homesick, and we must have reminded him of his family because we looked like him.аHe was Japanese, though, not Chinese.аI don’t remember his name, but I will call him Yoshi. Maybe Yoshi found us too different to satisfy his hunger for home.аOr maybe he shipped out soon after.аWhatever the reason, I don’t remember seeing him again after that one visit. Or any other Asian soldiers for that matter.

Now, of course, I know that the Yoshis of America had been torn away from family and home and placed in concentration camps in the name of national security, at the hand of the very same president we mourned. Yet Yoshi chose to serve, more than likely to prove his loyalty.аI imagine loss of life was a price he and others like him were willing to pay for membership in the fraternity.а

I became an American many years later.аI have since learned to see my adopted country with more discernment than my five-year-old self.аIn America, the lines of identity are still finely drawn.аToday, Yoshi has different names from many different cultures.аAt any given time, what happened to him and to his family could happen to any one of us.аWe are Americans, but we no longer have the assurance that other Americans will know who we are.

Yes, we are a fractious, opinionated, and sometimes myopic people.аWe have our share of crazies who express their private insanity in the most public of ways with often devastating consequences.аWe are capable of cold prejudice and self-righteous intolerance. Yet for all of that, we are also brave beyond words. We have amazing depths of compassion and an unerring sense of what is right even when it goes against the popular grain.аAnd some of us still dare to take a stand for the Yoshis of the world.а

In today’s atmosphere of distrust, intolerance and fear, it would be so easy to tilt the balance between these two sides of our national character.а I’m counting on our better angels to tip the scale.

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Which side are we on?

Let us hope it’s on the side

of humanity.

ай Maya Leland 2014