Work brought us to America in 1997. The suggestion had been presented a number of times in the previous years, but we had demurred. Not because we did not want to relocate – I had by that time lived in ten countries and my husband in six.
A panoply of color and creeds surrounded me and I did not know what segregation was, though at a fundamental level I knew I was privileged. My classmates were Buddhists, Hindus, Christians, Muslims, animists.
My husband had been traveling to the US for many years but it was not a country I had ever wanted to visit, let alone live. Stories of inherent racism permeated the international arena, in some ways more offensive even than South Africa’s apartheid, because America was meant to be the brave new world where all men are born equal.
But years pass, times change and hope is always present.
We came to America with excitement tinged naturally with trepidation. Houston was to be our city. We chose our neighborhood based on schools and proximity to work but had not taken into account the politics and color of the area and had, unwittingly, chosen a white Republican enclave.
It did not take long to realize I was not considered to be in the middle of the political spectrum – a line I had straddled comfortably for years. I had in a few short weeks become a staunch Democrat. But it’s a big and beautiful country and we came to love it, flaws and all. Our Green Cards arrived as we relocated to Equatorial Guinea in West Africa where we lived for nearly three years.
On our return to the US we decided to stay put for the requisite five years so we could gain citizenship. I was able to write “The President lives in the White House” in order to pass my English test. We had our date to swear allegiance to the flag.
We had filled in the forms, waited our time, paid our money to get to this point – there had never been any real concern that we would not be granted citizenship. Gazing around the packed tiers of the sports arena of a high school in north Houston I was humbled. People of all nationalities were waiting, and a great many of them had sweated and cried to be in that courtroom-for-a-day.
We were all becoming American. We were signing up, as Paul Krugman wrote in a recent New York Times op ed piece, to become part of a “multiracial, multicultural land of great metropolitan areas as well as small towns”.
But here’s the thing, before we got to that point on April 19th, 2010, we, all of us in that auditorium waiting to raise our right hands and pledge the Oath of Allegiance, had to swear we had never been, nor would become, affiliated to any organization that might harm the United States.
Us new Americans promised old Americans to abide by the laws, to live up to the ideals of equality and basic human rights, to respect the values of decent people irrespective of their color, where their ancestors or they came from, or their religious affiliations. And with the exception of handfuls, I believe most of us live by that credo.
But what about those born American? The flag might be raised in school yards and the Pledge of Allegiance sworn in rote each morning but what about the disengaged men and women who have forgotten, or reinterpreted, those words? What about those who spew hatred at anyone who does not believe white is might?
I find myself, as a relatively new and proud American, thrown back to the those days of reluctance. Those days of not wanting to live in a country where the color of skin, or what is worn on the head – whether it’s a hijab or a turban or a yarmulke – labels people in the eyes of the ignorant and angry as unAmerican.
And I find myself sad and despairing at the arrogance and nepotism emanating from that great White House. The days before rage and intolerance flew from vitriolic tweets, the days before innocent people on the street were mown down by bigotry and fanaticism.
Where is that hope? Where are those heady days of proud to be American, old or new?