America the Beautiful

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.

American flag

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."

Our little Jamaican country town was somber, quiet.аIt was April 1945, and I was just a child.аI knew nothing of the great war that would 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

I also thought all Americans were white, until the day a soldier who said his name was Yoshi came to introduce himself to our family.аI imagine he was homesick, and we must have reminded him of his family because we looked like him.аHe was Japanese, though, not Chinese.аMaybe we were too different to satisfy his hunger for home.аOr maybe he shipped out soon after.аWhatever the reason, I don’t remember seeing Yoshi again after that one visit.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. I think it was the self-assurance, the 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.аI loved that about them.аI envied them because they were everything I was not.аThen and there, America became the Promised Land for me.

Now, of course, I know that the Yoshis of America had been torn away from family and home in the name of national security, and at the hand of the very same president we mourned.аYet Yoshi chose to serve, more than likely to prove his loyalty.аLoss 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 learned to see my adopted country with more discernment than my five-year-old self.аIn today’s America, the lines of identity are less finely drawn.ааNow, the archetypal Yoshi has different names from many different cultures – whether it’s Jewish, Hispanic, Asian, African, or whatever ethnic groups is the least favored of the day. We ought not to forget that the Irish, Italians, Germans and other European immigrants also bore the brunt of prejudice. At any given time, what happened to Yoshi and 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 extreme distrust, intolerance and fear, where our Yoshis now have Middle Eastern names, it would be so easy to tip the balance between these two sides of our national character.а I’m counting on our better angels to tip the scale.

а

Which side are we on?

Let’s hope it’s on the side

of humanity.

а

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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?а There was hope for us after all.

Now, here it is just six years later, and once again I find my hopes for America being challenged. I hardly know what to make of the current insanity on the home front and around the world. I can only trust that our values as Americans, which led me to become a naturalized immigrant, will not be compromised.а


ай Maya Leland 2014