In the past week, I have been thinking about my childhood trips to India. The jet lag—the surreal feeling of leaving one country and waking up in another. Upon returning to the United States, my sister and I would stay up all night until my father took us to McDonald’s at 5 a.m. for breakfast (pancakes, sausage and scrambled eggs). After breakfast, we would go grocery shopping. There were never any lines at 7 a.m.
Something in that memory of America died within me. Assailed by news stories of executive orders banning Muslims, building a wall to keep people out, ending medical coverage for those who desperately need it, I didn’t realize how dearly I held in my own mind the benevolent image of America as an oasis. Other countries had despots and dictators. Other countries suffered from entrenched corruption (how many times had I witnessed my dad handing a wad of rupee notes to a customs official in India so we could leave the airport?)
I had encountered a fair amount of racism in my own childhood growing up in Wyoming, and my parents, though they don’t speak of it, did as well. But fundamentally, and without requiring articulation, I had come to believe that America was a place of kindness, openness, and aspiration. I imbibed without question the notion that if I worked hard enough, I would succeed. I know now that this isn’t true, that such a vision of America is far more problematic than my child’s understanding would allow. But still. People continue to come here seeking something better. Sometimes “better” comes with loneliness, a sense of belonging neither here nor there, a sense of provisional American-ness. During various times in my own life, and particularly when I was going through a difficult divorce, my mother would remark in frustration that she wished we hadn’t come here.
I’ve never felt that way. And I’m sure, if pressed, she would admit the same.
This country allowed me to start my life over again. I changed careers. I am a divorced parent of three children and, most importantly, I am free. I can live my life as I wish to. I can go for a walk at 10 p.m. around my neighborhood with only the shadowy feeling of vigilance (the province of all women) when I do so. I can attend a march of a 100,000 people without worrying about my safety. I can bring my own children to that same march with no greater worry than that one of them may need to use a bathroom at some point. I can live alone as a woman and not be judged. I can get an abortion if I need one (here in California, anyway). I know that if I tell my friends about my experiences of racism, I will be met with compassion and kindness.
I am an English professor now, though I will always be a lawyer. During my time in law school I came to love the Constitution, riddled as it is with ambiguity and, we now see, gaps as to what to do when a narcissistic autocrat is, unbelievably, bestowed with Article II powers. The other day in class, during our ten minute break, I saw two female students sharing photographs on their respective cell phones. One was a recent immigrant from Cameroon. The other was an immigrant from Afghanistan, wearing a purdah. They laughed and chatted like old friends. It was only the third day of class.
After class, I walked back to my office with another student, an Iraq war veteran, who told me about growing up in Oakland and about taking gunshots in Tikrit. In what other country could I have so many different people in one place, connecting Jiddu Krishnamurti’s concept of freedom in Freedom from the Known to lyrics from J. Cole’s newest track?
Later that night, with a sense of foreboding, I scanned the news. The wall was going to happen. The ban on Muslims and refugees was underway. The White House had openly condemned the press. Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto had canceled an upcoming meeting with the President. Orwellian stories from elsewhere. Not in my country.
But here we are. And for those of us who came here seeking something better, it is time for us to give back to this country that gave us so much. Daily calls to our senators. Protests. Words of support and kindness to our immigrant groups. Regard for each other as humans, not as drains on public coffers. Many in my community are Republican for financial purposes, or are politically centrist or silent because we have been taught to be “good immigrants.” But being American does not just mean paying taxes and blithely going to the mall. To be conferred the privilege of American citizenship carries with it the duty to safeguard its now imperiled democracy. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose birthday was only weeks ago, wrote in “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” that “anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.”
We are seeing our people turned into outsiders and we cannot let that happen, lest we give up on America itself, and all that it has given us.
Samantha Rajaram is a mother, community college professor of English, writer, and attorney. She lives in the Bay Area.