“Valentina, what is happening to your country?”
This, from a woman who fled Angola with her family – boarded a plane and left everything behind. I asked her how she must have felt in transit, responsible for three little ones and not knowing what would happen on arrival to Canada. Detention? Deportation? When I marveled at it, she simply said:
“Sometimes, you just have to be strong, close your eyes, and go. Trust.”
This, from a woman who knows real fear. She was watching CNN footage about the five police officers killed in Dallas. What followed would be a familiar conversation.
“I really don’t know if we could have lived in the US – it seems unsafe and I wonder if we would have ever gotten used to…Americans”
This, from a lovely German couple who emigrated to rural Ontario thirty years ago. I was staying on their farm for the weekend. They were, of course, describing the archetypal obnoxious American: white, ignorant and loud to boot. It was late, the wine was flowing, and I could tell they were not trying to offend, so I shook off my instinct to get defensive whenever non-Americans discuss Americans and we got to talking. About how absolutely massive and diversely opinionated the US is; about what it’s like being a person of color; about my and many of my peers relationship with our government; about why so many people are angry, and why they have the right to be angrier.
From Oman to Chile, Kenya to Brazil, this line of questioning, this demand to explain ‘my country’ as if it were singular and one-dimensional, comes up. And it’s difficult because it is often shrouded in this a pseudo-compliment about how I’m not like ‘most’ Americans; but…I actually don’t know too many of the type of American they’re imagining. Most Americans I know are thoughtful, aware, and decent. And, sure, a chunk of that has to do with the schools and social sphere’s I’ve attended; but I can only speak to my experiences and my peers. It makes it hard not to tense up when the dreaded conversation appears again.
And especially difficult? When the topic of exaggerated and unwarranted American patriotism is discussed.
Because I am really fucking proud. Of the America that escaped, smuggled people, fought stranger and kin, lost children – to drag us all out of slavery. Of the America that realized that wasn’t even half the battle, got back up and kept fighting and losing, losing children, and fighting not to make their singular lives better – but to make this whole country safe and just. How immense and selfless is the love of a mother whose child is murdered and instead of closing in and working to protect her remaining children, she fights so that no other mother should ever feel that unspeakable grief? Thank you for your service.
So, yes, I am proud to be an American. Proud of the living legacy of the heroes who stared down vicious dogs and water hoses, who sat in and occupied spaces where they were loathed, spit on, and abused. Didn’t they have doubts? Weren’t they tempted to withdraw into their families and surround themselves with love in a world that that hated them? Why risk your life and the very real possibility that you’ll become another soul for your family to mourn? Part of it must be how little they had to lose by this point. Another part of it, though, must be what I can only describe as a call; a call to be better than your enemies, a call to change an ugly world. Thank you for your service.
And today? Things are better – people of color are people. Maybe not whole and equal human beings yet – but the law does, in theory, see us as people. Things are also the same. Heavily skewed incarceration rates; underfunded and discriminatory education systems; the relationship between how likely you are to be legally murdered and the color of your skin, the bagginess of your pants, or how dangerous your Arizona Ice Tea seems.
Our world is a fearful and terrifying place – one that must be impossible to understand as an outsider. And yet, when we see people today standing up to state violence despite how ‘expendable’ they are, how can that be anything but bravery, anything but divine vision?
Thank you for your service.
Valentine Marie is a co-founder of Flux, an online forum for those of us encountering adulthood. A restless person, she loves good food, travel, and family. You can find her in a coffee shop or a used bookstore near you.