These days between Memorial Day and the Fourth of July might be the best time to examine the question of what it means to be an American. I have been fascinated with the diverse immigrant experience ever since I can remember. Having grandfathers who were both immigrants and thus having parents who were first generation immigrants were perhaps the reason for my interest. Knowing my Dad had first cousins in Sweden and getting Christmas cards from them made my Grandfather’s immigrant experience more real. Seeing his photo from his naturalization papers, a young man of nineteen, wearing a stylish hat, suit and tie, but with a slightly confused look, caused me to wonder what he was really thinking on that auspicious day. He spoke English with a thick Swedish accent all his life. It was who he was, my grandpa.
Later on, when I was in graduate school, I took a number of classes which did a better job of rounding out my limited understanding on this question of diversity in America. Classes in African history from an Africa scholar were fascinating to study. To better understand this culture’s texture and diversity and how it was added to American life was life-changing. A course in “La Raza” (the people) talked about the history of Mexico and U.S. relations from warfare to acceptance of a people with the complex heritage of the Mayas and Incas and the European Spanish that are so much a part of the history of our country, especially in California and the Southwest. The resistance of Black slaves was a discussion that was core to a study of Black American history which supplemented the African history I had learned. Resistance to the institution of slavery had been integral to the history of Blacks in America. The fear the white master had trying to keep slaves under their control boiled into the South in the days of “Jim Crow”. Unfortunately it still permeates a part of our culture today. A Native American study just underscored the wide range of culture and heritage that are part of the American Indians' history on this continent, going back to the first humans who crossed the Bering Straits and made their way south almost 11,000 years ago.
Studying in India and dealing with a history 5,000 years old and later traveling and studying in Japan opened the doors to Asia and again cultures and histories which were intriguing and enriching to America and to the world. In both countries we stayed with families, ate together, and told our stories. I finally got to visit my family in Sweden and found a generous, welcoming group of people who are very much a part of who I am.
This season of the year I honor the soldiers who served this country in all its wars and the men and women who fought side by side: Americans of every race and creed. As I place a flag on my father’s grave, a veteran, I am reminded of how fortunate I am whenever I can learn from someone else about their world and share experiences.
Tonight on television, I watched a discussion on Racism taking place in Philadelphia, “the city of brotherly love”. I heard the voices of men and women, black and white, who said this is an issue for all Americans. Most of us are not overtly racist. We don’t want to be racist, but because we are white, we are privileged. Just that one characteristic opens doors for us that are not accessible to people of color. It is a privilege we do not readily understand nor do we easily share. There was a special on Asian-Americans, the Chinese, who labored under the Chinese Exclusionary Act for decades until it was defeated in the Congress. With its defeat families were reunited and the intelligence and great abilities of the Chinese people enhanced our technical revolution and their devotion to family and tradition reminded us of these important family values.
When I taught World History I used to tell my students that “different is not bad. It is just different.” Different is a word without negative or positive connotations. Different just “is”. While we appreciate our small town and rural living, we must not forget the wider world. The very essence of humanity is to find a common path to share during our time on this earth. The diversity, the color, the texture, the music, the history and the heroes of each group of people we welcome to our country can only enhance what we will build as we structure a future for the generations to come.