What is an American?

1968 was a landmark year when Americans reckoned with the Vietnam War, the Cold War, civil rights, human rights, and ultimately, what type of Americans we wanted to be.

But to me, the waves of 1968 don’t feel like they belong in my collective history. My parents don’t tell me stories of what they were doing when Kennedy was shot. They didn’t read Joan Didion’s White Album and didn’t watch the Vietnam protests unfold on the TV. Nor did they take in the injustices in America and trust that moral pendulum of the world would swing towards justice.

In 1968 my parents were in India, watching a different type of pendulum swing violently back and forth. And in 1990 they left, an act that can be viewed simultaneously as a feat of incredible bravery and a betrayal of one’s identity. They left a country that belonged to them in hopes that their children would belong to a place that was more equitable, filled with better opportunities.

Yet these many years later, we’re still grappling with the same question of type of country we belong to and what it means to call ourselves Americans.

With DACA at risk, the Muslim ban and the threatening presence of ICE agents, the question of who counts and is treated as an American, is a loaded, complicated question.

America has given me so much, making me feel fortified and boundless. It has also at times taken away so much, leaving me with shallow breath and feeling hollow.

When my family first moved to America, my older sister, who was five at the time and knew no English would cry at the bus stop every morning. My mom would cry with her, partially because she couldn’t stand to see her daughter in pain, but I think partially because she understood what it felt like to feel so lonely and helpless.

With the current rhetoric, I can only imagine that so many other immigrants are feeling a much stronger and paralyzing form of that loneliness and helplessness. And the effects of this are already being felt. A recent ACLU report shows the increased fear in immigrant communities is stopping immigrants from reporting crimes and participating in court proceedings. This same fear could cause an undercount of immigrant families 2020 Census, leading to a decrease in federal program and social services.

I’m reminded of a commencement speech Toni Morrison gave in 2004, about the power of the personal narrative.

“You are your own stories and therefore free to imagine and experience what it means to be human without wealth. What it feels like to be human without domination over others, without reckless arrogance, without fear of others unlike you, without rotating, rehearsing and reinventing the hatreds you learned in the sandbox. And although you don’t have complete control over the narrative, you could nevertheless create it.

….It also means that you can invent the language to say who you are and what you mean. But then, I am a teller of stories and therefore an optimist, a believer in the ethical bend of the human heart, a believer in the mind’s disgust with fraud and its appetite for truth, a believer in the ferocity of beauty.”

It’s storytellers like Toni Morrison who have shaped my view of what bigotry really is and what justice means. In her speech, she’s careful not to sugarcoat or whitewash. The future isn’t in our hands and the moral arc of the universe, though it may bend towards justice, will inevitably break lives and shatter families as it makes its way back.

So what do we do?

Of course many Americans do care and have stepped up. There are many ways to help, from donating money to offering legal services, to volunteering with immigrant populations, to simply showing up and protesting.

Morrison seems to say there’s also power in engaging with art. Support works of art from people who are creating their own narrative, from people who have felt foreign, who have cried at bus stops. Reading a book won’t change the world. But perhaps supporting these narratives will make the future generation hate a little bit less, creating kinder sandboxes.

Let’s read, listen, and take in different narratives, so we can learn how to sit with discomfort, so that we can teach ourselves to act with empathy, so we can define for ourselves what it means to be an American.

If you would like to know what art I’m reading, listening and watching, follow me on Twitter @Heba__h