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Where is that hope?

August 20, 2017 — 2 Comments

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?

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It was a good day. An easterly breeze ruffled whitecaps offshore and flowery hats onshore as men, women and a smattering of children watched marching bands and majorettes parade past the bedecked dais filled with local and international worthies.

Expectation hovered. Said dignitaries made their way to a large marquee under which islanders, long-time residents, newbies like me, tourists and a contingent of Danish visitors wafted programs back and forth moving air along the rows.

Would Denmark apologise for past indignities? For the human tragedy of the transatlantic slave trade? Would the mainland listen to entreaties by islanders for full US citizenship allowed a vote in presidential elections?

Chatter along the lines was hopeful. Cheerful. Who doesn’t like a parade, the promise of promises – even if they are later unfulfilled, the anticipation of revelry, jazz and fireworks? Meanwhile steel pans from a local elementary school and the Copenhagen Brass Ensemble took turns in keeping the masses entertained.

A wreath was floated off the Boardwalk in memory of ancestors and, in particular, Alberta Viola Roberts, a girl taken from her family and transported to Copenhagen at the age of four to be displayed in the Tivoli Gardens – an oddity to be ogled. As fate would have it, she was buried in that cold and distant land on 31st March, 1917 – the day Denmark sold the Danish West Indies to the United States of America for 25 million dollars in gold.

The brass band struck up Der er et Yndigtland and voices from the Danish contingent proudly sang their national anthem as the dannebrog slid down Fort Christiansvaern’s flagpole to be replaced by the fluttering Stars and Stripes. Then came the Star Spangled Banner, followed by the Virgin Islands March, written by Alton Adams in 1920. The lyrics, All hail the Virgin Islands, Em’ralds of the sea, filtering around the tent in a swirl of pride, and hope.

An invocation, then opening remarks by Sonia Jacobs Dow who commented that islanders were citizens of nowhere from 1917 – 1927 when the newly-acquired islands were under naval administration. We were exhorted to remember “blood, sweat and tears are inextricably mixed in this soil” and that, “this celebration is more than a moment”.

Each year, on Transfer Day, the proceedings are interspersed with a naturalization ceremony when new citizens swear allegiance to their new country. This year 20 men and women from eight countries became Americans to the sound of children’s laughter as they rolled down the slope from the fort – their frivolity lending an air of joyful abandon to the occasion. Further proof the US is founded on the willingness of foreigners to renounce their birth countries and apply their skills to enriching their new country.

After the temporary court was adjourned, politicians returned to the lectern. The Honorable Stacey E Plaskett carried on the theme of disenfranchisement, commenting that whilst the purchase of the Danish West Indies was the most costly land purchase in US history, no providence was made for the islanders in the document – ensuring they became essentially “a marooned people”.

Then came the speech of the day – spoken eloquently in a language not his own – by the Danish Prime Minister, The Honorable Lars Løkke Rasmussen. He began by saying a special bond of friendship existed between the Virgin Islands and Denmark, “a touch of common destiny that time cannot erase.”

While not apologizing for bygone atrocities, Prime Minister Rasmussen did acknowledge them saying, “There is no justification for the exploitation of men, women and children under the Danish flag.” He said the term ‘dreamer’ as David Hamilton Jackson was called by a Danish governor was in all likelihood meant as an insult, but that in today’s world it would considered an honour. We were reminded, “We must acknowledge what happened in the past but we can’t undo the past – what we can do is look to the future.”

It was a smooth transition to the announcement of a 5-year scholarship program to be given at the University of the Virgin Islands. It is students who “must take destiny into their own hands,” Rasmussen said.

The Prime Ministers’s words were in stark contrast, both in content and delivery, to those uttered by the senior US representative, Secretary of The Interior Ryan Zinke. His vacuous introduction to a letter from President Trump was a disgrace, made even worse by platitudes in the letter from the head of the free world. One got the impression the letter was a cut-and-paste job – you know the type, insert state and date, and sign here please, Mr President. No credence was given to the concerns of Virgin Islanders – that of full-voting rights for citizens. An unctuous attempt to appease the USVI, America’s Caribbean, without offering even a modicum of hope for improvement.

Kenneth E Mapp, Governor of the Virgin Islands, rounded out the official celebrations by commenting that, “Living in the past has little value on our future. But knowing our past is important to our future.”

Black limousines drove dignitaries away – the program to be repeated on St Thomas at 2pm. Meanwhile on St Croix the crowds dispersed along the Boardwalk, back to cars parked haphazardly on our street, or to local watering holes. To reconvene as the sun set in a tickle of pink and mauve over masts bobbing in Christiansted harbour, and the sounds of Eddie Russell and his jazz band.

And then the boom, the hiss, the thrill of the sky dissolving in a shower of sparkling colours as fireworks saluted 100 years of being American!