This past election year, our family dinners were pretty quiet; we aren’t
content to fill the silence with small talk. So we don’t agree on politics. Is
it just me, or do you feel the blue/red national divide drawing its line across
the dining table, too?
We both studied art – spent time painting and creating, together. Enough to
agree that beauty, like truth, is subjective. It’s art if you frame it right and
put it on a pedestal. And the truth is that the facts don’t mean anything
without the frame. So how did we grow up together and end up with such different
Our parent’s lives were full of surprises. They lived in three countries by
the time they were in their thirties, and raised kids who spoke their native
language like foreign exchange students. They invested in the promise of
America: being able to choose our own adventure – remember those books? Only for
us, there’s no pre-written happy ending. And in this world, working hard and
being good simply isn’t enough.
Our refugee parents, and this nation of immigrants, built their lives on the
promise of success through perseverance, effort, and a little luck. A path was
laid out: education, hard work, rewards. You have only to make your way forward.
Be good at what you do. Get what you deserve. But that isn’t how the story has
Our path was not easy and not made easier by pretending that it was the same
path as everyone else’s. Even now, inexplicably, our boys are struggling in
school – just as you did – even with completed homework and good grades. Are
they getting what they deserve – did you? Their story is like so many other
boys’ of color; they aren’t just failing out of school, school is failing them.
We grew up learning to give thanks every Sunday and call it charity for what
was given. We lined up for food that arrived in packages like rat poison (and
sent our brother to the hospital). We dressed in clothes no longer fit for other
children. We went to school with friends who laughed- sometimes with us,
sometimes at us. They helped in so many ways it hurt. And though we weren’t
always sure what we were being cured of, we offered them a token of gratitude.
That’s what they needed. That was what they knew to do. We were refugee kids in
a place where the only other reference to fleeing from war was Julie Andrews
singing in the mountains.
The fact is they needed us too: to sleep better at night, knowing that
something large and terrible happened simply because they allowed it to. And we
survived that terror. How do we move beyond the charity that labels us givers
and receivers? The charity that taught us to first shed ourselves, our culture,
then put it on a shelf for display, and finally, for sale. I read the labels, I
know what they mean. How sad to believe we are only worth as much as someone
else will offer. We must accept that we needed help to get us here – and most of
all we need to stand together to get ourselves out of here.
Your liberation is bound with mine; we all give and receive. The WE is a
beast – an unruly creature of perpetual give and take across the aisle, across
color lines, across gender, religion, and all the things that could divide us.
The big WE cannot go on favoring one over another, valuing one kind of
contribution over the other. Or we will all pay the price. Where’s the hope in
taming the collective beast, when we are still battling our private demons?
So far, the answer has been to divide and conquer the monstrosity of WE made
of tiny little I’s, each with a role so different we question whether they
belong together at all. But we cannot accept that good fences make good
neighbors – it’s what the privileged say to the rest of us to make us accept the
divide. It’s what got us into this mess in the first place.
Hope for something better –something within your power to make better – is
necessary. Equally necessary is recognizing the fact that no matter how hard you
work, there is still a gatekeeper to where the grass really is greener on the
other side. Not because we want grass –chemlawns marketed to the masses – but
because they are watering their fenced-in golf courses while our communities are
in a drought. What we all forget is that the gate swings both ways. A difference
is not a divide. We can be made whole.