Dear United States of America,
You may consider this a belated birthday letter of sorts. Two days ago, on the day many celebrated with parades and fireworks, I was still sorting through all of my complicated emotions.
For all my sorrow and revulsion at the jingoism and militarism with which so many marked the day, I found myself reflecting not only upon your – upon our – sins, but also on the beauty and love and joy that thrives between your shores, USA. You, nation of natives and immigrants, nation of refugees, nation built by slaves whose struggle for full liberty in a land rooted in segregation continues, your beauty lies in your people. Today some people are forgetting that we are a nation of migrants from around the world. Today some want to shrink you down, not to your original state, but to the myth that birthed you. The myth that you were a land waiting to be conquered, the myths of manifest destiny and white supremacy. These myths have planted themselves deep within you, O United States, but they are not all that you are. You have grown beyond your origins, you have grown to include the once excluded and marginalized. It is in recognition of how far you have come and how far you have yet to go, and in an attempt to do what I can to keep you from sliding backwards, that I write to you now.
I know, of course, that July 4th is neither the birthday of this land nor of her original people. It is rather the day on which colonial settlers – who would continue to kill and expel indigenous tribes as they expanded their territory and used slave labor to build their structures and their economy – declared their independence from England and proceeded to claim ownership of a land they refused to share with brown-skinned natives. It is the day after which abolitionists relented and allowed slavery to be a part of the new Constitution, for many had held out on signing it until that condition was met. July 4th is a day on which some declared freedom at the expense of the life and liberty of others.
And your founding murders and expulsions must never be forgotten, USA. Though they continue to be mythologized and disguised under flags and fireworks, we the people cannot forget that you were born in and sustained by blood, mostly of others. We cannot forget that you have spent 225 out of 242 of your years at war. We cannot forget that you – that we the people who make you who you are – are a nation of contradictions and paradoxes. We cannot forget the yawning gap between the ideal of “liberty and justice for all” and the reality of having the world’s largest incarceration rate. We cannot forget that our experiment in “rule by the people,” began with robbing most of the people of their human identity. Nor can we forget that under the pseudonym of democracy, the United States has suppressed fledgling democracies worldwide for the sake of thinly-veiled power and greed.
We must remember all of this; we must stare at the faults and sins of our past and present in order to struggle through and transcend them into our future. For the only way to live into the best of our ideals – into the truly noble goals of freedom and justice for everyone – is to live in continual repentance. Not guilt, that paralyzing and regressive emotion that sinks us deeper into our faults as the shadow of our mistakes eclipses the light of our potential, but repentance, the conversion of our hearts and minds from violence to mercy, from exceptionalism to humility. Hope is the catalyst of repentance, and the hope of this nation lies in the love at the core of each human being, the love that binds us together and kindles within us the drive and desire to make this nation an ever more perfect union.
It is because of my hope in the people I love here within your shores, dear United States, that I write to you today. For I have never considered myself a patriot, knowing as I do the foundation of deception on which so much of our national image is built. But to build nations on deceit, on myth, on the burial grounds of victims, is human nature. I will not excuse our bloody origins by claiming that other nations are also bathed in blood, and I painfully acknowledge that the United States remains the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today. But this does not mean that our people are beyond hope or redemption, nor that the truth of who we have been has the final word on who we will be.
I love you, United States of America, because you were the home to which my husband’s parents came from the Philippines. I love you because upon your soil my dear friend’s mother built a life for herself when she moved from Afghanistan. I love you because you are the nation to which my friends came from around the world, from India and Pakistan and Guatemala and China and Vietnam and North and South Korea and Mexico and Colombia and on and on and on. I love you because between your shores I have met people from all over the world who have found a welcome home in which to build their lives. I love you because my own ancestors came to this land when the coming was easy… at least some of them did. I know you are not the only nation that has welcomed people from all over the world, but you are the nation in which I have met them, because you are my home.
But for far too long now, you have been making so many more refugees than you’ve been taking in. You have set the world on fire and shut your door. Those who set your policies have banned travelers from five Muslim majority countries, along with North Korea and Venezuela, while you wage a global war of terror through the Middle East. Your southern border is mostly closed to asylum-seekers, though your policies have devastated Central America. Leaders are making it more difficult for immigrants to come legally. And now a task-force has been created to go after naturalized citizens with inconsistencies in their paperwork, to strip them of citizenship.
I’m fully aware that when I write to you, I write to myself. As your citizen, I am obligated to speak against these injustices you perpetrate. They are not just injustices against the world, against those who’ve come in need of compassion only to find cruelty. We are destroying the best of who we are when we forget that we are a nation of people from all over the world. Too often those who exclude forget that they or their ancestors were once excluded. We have always been a nation where marginalized peoples have sought refuge, all too often to turn around and marginalize others. We still have a long way to go before living into the truth that apparently is not as self-evident as it should be, that all are created equal. But we are also a nation that has shown that we can do better. We must do better now.
I have never considered myself a patriot, for I have never believed in American exceptionalism, and I have long rejected your imperialism. But I do know that to love everyone, you have to love those closest to you, and to love the world, you have to love the place where you live. If loving your land and your people and struggling as your citizen to make you more generous, more compassionate, and more humble is what makes a true patriot, then I will aspire to that honor. I am emboldened by all who seek to help you realize your promise of liberty and democracy for everyone. I am encouraged by all who know that your greatest power lies not in arms that kill but in arms that embrace, those who seek to shrink your footprint but expand your heart. I stand with those who, not only through their votes, but through their service, their civil disobedience, their friendships across artificial divides of race and religion and sexual orientation and gender identity, strive to make you known not by your wars but by your love.
Happy Birthday, USA.