Inalienable: Reflections on Independence and Belonging

Coming to America

Having lived in the U.S. for several decades, it is getting harder to recall the person that I was before I came to this country. Even though I had read “Gone with the Wind,” that iconic Civil War novel, I had not properly understood America’s history of slavery. Even though I had read about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I knew virtually nothing about the Civil Rights movement.

In 1970s India plagued by economic malaise, what we admired most about America was the country’s technological prowess, epitomized by the Apollo 11 moon landing. Beyond that, the US seemed to be #1 at everything… movies, sports, human rights… you name it.

Young ambitious people dreamed of coming to America. We felt that here we would be able to achieve to our potential, that we would be free of the forces that were likely to hold us back in our own country. Most did not pause to consider what they were jettisoning or leaving behind. America’s soft power was such that, sadly, even parents and teachers could not bring themselves to discourage the headlong leaps.

Why MLK Day Matters

The good news is that the youthful gamble paid off. With a lot of grit and perseverance, many are living the lives that they dreamt of—a higher standard of living together with personal and professional success. But even more important is the freedom to assimilate at the pace and to the extent of one’s own choosing. Equally crucial is the assurance of being met with civility, of participating in public life with a stake equal to that of any native-born citizen.

What I eagerly and gratefully acknowledge on this MLK Day as on all others is this: I would not be here, and my story would not be what it is, if not for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

For, if not for him and the Civil Rights struggle for equality that he led, those of us who came to what we thought was the shining city on the hill, would have instead encountered prejudice and discrimination. Where would we have fit when it came to “colored” waiting rooms, and whites-only lunch counters? Would we have been willing to pay the price of “separate but equal” even if it had come with a higher standard of living than the one back in India? My answer is an unequivocal “No.”

I am a Citizen of the Country he Forged

In short, MLK did more than almost any other person to bring modern America closer to its self-professed image of itself—a place of justice and fairness and welcoming of many hues and cultures. Equally, he made it possible for America to project itself confidently on the world stage, to advocate for human rights and assert the inherent dignity of all human beings.

As a naturalized American, I am a citizen of the country that he forged.

About a decade ago I attended the MLK Day observance at the City Hall in my New England town. More than 90% of the attendees were African-American. It bothered me to think that this day seemed not to matter to non-blacks. I felt out of place—like a fraud almost. If this was not a community-wide event, what was I doing there? Did I have the right to stand up and sing “We Shall Overcome”?

We Shall Overcome

The press was in attendance. At one point I saw a photographer aim her camera in my general direction. I felt mortified at the thought that my photo might be published in the hometown newspaper. This was not because I was worried that I might be recognized.

I didn’t want my presence there to have been noticed at all. I wanted to be a fly on the wall, or just one more “also there” un-noteworthy person among many. I wanted to be there in fellowship with the other people observing the day. I wanted a private yet tangible way to express respect for MLK and my empathy for the struggles of his people.

As I walked out of the building, I ran into a young (white) duo—my daughter’s best friend and her boyfriend. The diversity that I had missed was there and it had crossed both race and age lines. I was glad.

My Own MLK Traditions

Over the years, I have developed my own MLK Day traditions. One is reading a book about the African-American experience. Another is watching the “I Have a Dream” speech in its entirety. Even after multiple viewings, I find the speech astonishingly moving. It has a moral force that simply cannot be refuted.

One little factoid enhances my awareness of the thread that binds my two countries and it gives me the sense of a shared cause that I missed when I attended the City Hall event.

Some of the men standing behind MLK were wearing the Gandhi Topi. This was MLK’s way of acknowledging Mahatma Gandhi’s role in his ideas about civil disobedience and nonviolent resistance. What a fitting tribute!

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Nandini Patwardhan is a retired software developer and co-founder of Story Artisan Press. Her writing has been published in, among others, the New York Times, Mutha Magazine, Talking Writing, and The Hindu....