By JOHN HEID
When I was 13 my mother announced to me: “I want you to meet your elderly Aunt Mary before she dies.” Without further discussion mother sent me off to Glassport, Penn. for a weekend visit. I’d never met Aunt Mary, and all I knew was that she didn’t speak a lick of English—and I no Polish. I was not fired up about spending the weekend with her. Following mother’s orders none the less, off I went on the Greyhound for three days that keep coming to mind every time the burning matter of immigration flares up.
I fell into the rabbit hole of culture shock meeting the Ruthkowski side of my otherwise very German family. These folks were a passel of blood relatives who spoke differently, kept their homes differently, and cooked differently than in my house. And I had the time of my life, language barriers notwithstanding. We were family, tho’ culturally miles apart. Without saying a word of English, Aunt Mary opened windows in my mind, and widened, if just a bit, my view of what America looks like.
Flash forward a couple decades to Baltimore in the mid ‘80s. I was serving 6 months in a federal halfway house on the far east side of the city. Every inmate was required to work outside the facility and I was granted permission to do my work hours as a volunteer at Viva House, the Catholic Worker several miles across town. Four days a week I would peddle across the city on my bicycle through neighborhoods I never knew existed, let alone been in. I recall hearing language after language flowing through the open windows into the sultry, summery streets of Baltimore as I passed by. And the fragrances coming from the kitchens linger in my taste buds. Each neighborhood unique. One city. Many cultures. Side by side.
Every time I see somebody wearing a cap that reads “Make America Great Again” a tidal wave of questions arise. What is America? Who is American? Who am I looking at? Where am I looking? And when, if ever, was it great? When wasn’t it?
For starters the term “America” is an incomplete, specious, and culturally challenged moniker for the United States. Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, writes in An Indigenous Peoples’ History Of The United States: “I refrain from using ‘America’ and ‘American’ when referring to the United States and its citizens. Those blatantly imperialistic terms annoy people in the rest of the Western Hemisphere, who are, after all, also Americans.”
The Earth has just gone full circle around the sun since the last US presidential election. I call 2017 the year of the looking glass, which culminates years of navel gazing. The deep rifts in the core values of our nation have been exposed. They are in our face. The comeuppance was inevitable. These differences didn’t happen overnight, any more than earthquakes do. The tectonic plates of sociological structures move slowly, often imperceptibly. Voices at the edge have been warning us for decades—even longer, from the beginning. Our history celebrates and haunts us; mostly from the closet. Now we’re face to face with ourselves. The emperor’s clothes lie scattered on the ground, alongside ours. And our national wounds are exposed to the light of day.
“We are very cruelly trapped between what we would like to be and what we actually are. And we cannot possibly become what we would like to be until we are willing to ask ourselves just why the lives we lead on this continent are mainly so empty, so tame and so ugly.” —James Baldwin, “Mass Culture and the Creative Artist: Some Notes,” The Cross of Redemption
I believe that self-education is a worthy first step to unraveling our national identity crisis. Or better said, we need to undo the single course menu of US history we’ve been spoon fed from the get go. In his 1963 “A Talk to Teachers,” James Baldwin wrote: “American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful, and more terrible than anything anyone has said about it.”
A worthy remedial education course could begin with Ms. Dunbar-Ortiz’s Indigenous Peoples’ History, Michael Bronski’s A Queer History of the United States, Kim E. Nielsen’s A Disability History of the United States. Not to mention Howard Zinn’s masterpiece A People’s History of the United States.
Then comes the disciple of critical listening. And to whom shall we listen? How about First Nations people for openers? Those who were here before the conquest, before there was a United States. In An Indigenous Peoples’ History, Willie Johns, from Brighton Seminole Reservation in Florida says, “We are here to educate, not forgive. We are here to enlighten, not accuse.”
In poetic form Langston Hughes weighs in: “Say, who are you that mumbles in the back? And who are you that draws your veil across the stars? / I am the poor white fooled and pushed apart, / I am the negro bearing slavery’s scars. / I am the red man [sic] driven from the land, / I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek– / And finding the same old stupid plan / Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak. / Let America Be America Again” (an excerpt)
The task of remembering rounds out the prescription for our identity dilemma. Angela Davis reminds us, “We live in a society of an imposed forgetfulness, a society that depends on public amnesia.”
Re-membering is, after all, simply putting together the myriad stories of all those who inhabit this land thereby exposing and breaking through the cycle of cultural amnesia.
Where do we go from here? There are no quick fixes. No one-size-fits-all legislation. A change in Administrations in and of itself does not interrupt the status quo of colonization and its subsequent repression. Revolution? Isn’t that what got us here in the first place? Perhaps, what is needed is a revolution of heart, as Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker said.
“O let America be America again– / The land that never has been yet– / And yet must be–the land where every man [sic] is free. / The land that’s mine–the poor man’s [sic], Indians, Negroes, ME” —Langston Hughes
I can imagine my beloved Aunt Mary smiling over a platter of steaming homemade pierogis smothered in buttered onions saying, “Eat and you will eventually understand.” #####