Waking up, out of America
I’m having a little trouble with equilibrium this morning, trying to settle thoughts and feelings with the news. This America isn’t what I grew up saluting, slack flag in the corner, stars and stripes a little faded in the hot, dry California sun. We aimed ourselves at it each morning, slapped our hands on our hearts and parroted allegiance because they told us to.
You know how it goes:
I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
We all had a little trouble with indivisible. It came out invisible, often enough.
One nation, invisible.
Or invisible, liberty and justice. It isn’t for all, is it?
I am appalled by the awful privilege of white racism.
I am shocked by the complicity of police and politicians, who we were raised to respect.
I am sickened by losers who feel entitled to win.
I have lived in the UK for more than twenty-five years – yet, I am American. I remain an American writer.
My America is Melville, and Hawthorne, Dickinson and Steinbeck. My America is Baldwin, Morrison, Angelou, Langston Hughes. But my America is also Faulkner and Thoreau, O’Connor and Ingalls Wilder – and there are issues there, increasingly hard to overlook. (There are issues with Melville and Hawthorne too, come to think of it, which sends me spiralling backward: what is there within myself that I do not see clearly?). My America is so many writers: Jesmyn Ward and Terry Tempest Williams and Joan Didion and Leslie Marmon Silko and Scott Momaday and Louise Erdrich and and and.
When I was a teenager, I saw a Native American man crying on a sidewalk, clearly drunk and suffering. “They took my country,” he said, repeatedly, and I thought I understood his pain. I did not. When I went to a school dance with a classmate from Korea, my grandmother said white girls shouldn’t do such things, my Midwest grandmother born in 1902 who’d had Black servants and Black maids in uniforms serving canapes at her card parties in Pasadena. More than likely, I only rolled my eyes at her outdated view. When I dated a Black man, I didn’t tell my mother, so that I wouldn’t have to hear or acknowledge her thoughts. That shames me now. When I used to produce concerts, I found myself alone in my office paying a bandleader, a Black jazz pianist several decades older than myself who decided to kiss me, without invitation or consent, and stuck his tongue into my mouth with force and entitlement. I didn’t tell my mother – or anybody – about this either, for shame. That shames me now as well.
My country ‘tis of thee: a song I sang. A song we sang together. They sing that same tune here, though it has new words: God Save the Queen. After I’d been living in the UK for a while, I found myself back at my old primary school, where my mother also taught – first grade. I found myself at the flag ceremony, students gathered around this tall pole in the spring heat and this flag, flying freely. Few of the students were white. The catchment area has become increasingly Latinx. I watched those little bodies, those little hands on those little hearts, and found myself crying. I had no idea why.
America is an idea, but today I can’t remember what it was about. Maybe the idea will come back to me. Or maybe the delusion that sent armed invaders into the Capital to loot and take selfies has cast its net wider. Maybe we were all deluded that we could stand beneath one flag and feel the same.