You know – as the granddaughter of immigrants, I have always been proud of my heritage but as immigrants, my family had not lost sight that we are American. My brother and I grew up here and learned that we were Americans first before we were immigrants or Italians, or Germans (I even have some French-Canadian in me). We spoke to our grandparents and parents about their experiences, coming to a different country to pursue a different life as potential refugees and non-native English speakers. They came here with hearts full of hope and dreams that one day, they would be Americans. And so – we became Americans.
Being an American has been a struggle for me, to be honest. I have reveled in my heritage since I can remember being nothing but proud of my family and where we came from. My grandmother, a German immigrant, worked in the same department at Macy’s for as long as I can remember, finally retiring in her 80’s. My grandfather with his children started their own business in New Jersey and worked to raise their sons and daughters in a stable economy where they would be given undreamed of opportunities. I look back at my family history (as far back as I can) and I think, what is more American than that? But, what did the word ‘American’ truly mean to me as a white college educated woman?
My experiences have been shaped by their hard work and commitment to a better life that I cannot have anything but an open heart for any persons, refugee or not, that want to come to America and define what it means to be American. Perhaps, for too long we have hidden behind our privilege and forgotten what ‘America’ was founded upon and the corresponding shining golden light it cast upon the world in a time of supreme oppression.
Now it seems that America will find itself in the shadow of someone else’s light while they fight our own modern flavor of oppression. To see my country make such drastic moves that can only be categorized as Anti-American directing us retrograde in comparison to the rest of the free world is heartbreaking and shameful. Americans who can trace their history back to a name in the Ellis Island Book of Names or perhaps to long lost relatives on other continents should not forget how they became Americans. Somehow, a whole generation (multiple generations, even) have forgotten that their families and their ancestors were immigrants, willing or unwilling.
We all need to take a moment and remember where we, as a people, come from. We need to remember the grievances we committed to others during that struggle for Freedom. We need to acknowledge our wrongdoings and welcome utter kindness into our life, for all people, just as the Natives did to us – oh so long ago (but not really that long). This isn’t a debate on who is to blame for the deportation of jobs or the motives behind the war on women’s bodies or the threat of extreme terror. This is a call to practice kindness and acceptance among our friends, our enemies, and everyone else in-between. That is what I learned being American is about and that is what we need to remember most in this desperate time of looming socioeconomic crisis.
Let us teach the world what American can mean again – just how my immigrant family taught me what ‘American’ meant to them. Kindness and acceptance isn’t a one-time deal, it cannot be an ideal that we preach but don’t practice. It is the intent behind all of our actions and how we move through the world with every choice we make. This is the hard work taught to me by my family who came to this country looking for just that, kindness and acceptance. The accompanying picture is of my fridge where I have collected photos from my family and my partners’ family to look at every day so that we as individuals and as Americans never forget not only where we came from but also the invaluable lessons taught to us by them and how we must make a point to actively practice those teachings every day.