When I was a child, I traveled back and forth between Jamaica and the States so much that for the first ten years of my life, I wasn’t sure exactly which place I considered more of a home, here or there. I wasn’t alone in these travels. Relatives of mine came up or went down with what seemed to be the same frequency that some people catch a cab to go to work at the beginning of the day and then catch a cab to head home at the end of the day. We were immigrants fresh off the plane and thus, back then, we were still trying to get our bearings between the two worlds, the one we left behind and the one we were trying to make our new home. This meant we were always at the airport, always either boarding planes, getting off of planes, greeting relatives, and or saying goodbye to relatives. Perhaps, this is why when I am at an airport today, I always feel a sense of love, a familiar sense of coming home, regardless of which home I am coming home to.
When returning from my many trips to Jamaica, I remember how elated I felt as the captain on the airplane announced to the passengers that if we looked outside our windows we could see the New York City skyline. I remember trying my best to identify exactly which of the many dots of light below me was our little house in Brooklyn. I remember feeling safe once we had gotten through customs, retrieved our baggage and found ourselves in the arrival area of the airport, looking for a familiar face of a loved one. I remember running under the roped dividers into the arms of my grandmother, my grandfather, my uncles, my aunts, my mom and others. Even when I became older and found myself once stopped by an armed customs officer at the airport, because someone must have thought a 27 year old black guy with only one carry-on bag with him, who had been in Jamaica for more than a few weeks, looked suspicious, I could not shake the feeling of safety and love I had for the airport.
And when he opened up my bag and found all books and then with his Iowa-corn-boy looking grin, laughed and said, if there were more people like me trafficking books instead of drugs, then he would be out of a job, I wasn’t offended. Maybe I should have been pissed, but how could I be? I was back in the States, back in the city where I had been a member of my school choir at Immaculate Conception on 14th street, where I had played soccer for the Manhattan Kickers in the city, where I had attended Xavier Prep. in Chelsea, where I had run track at the armory on 168th street, where I had my first kiss in the middle of St. Mark’s Place, where I used to ride my skateboard home from my job on Macdougal Street and where I had graduated from high school at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. And even if my family was still at that time, far more Jamaican than American, and even though I sometimes still felt as out of place in the States as I did in Jamaica, for the most part, I had no doubt that I was home. So if they wanted to suspect me, bookworm that I am, of being a drug dealer, let them, because at the end of the day, at least back then, I had my rights, and also my bag full of books to prove my innocence.
Maybe this is why when I turned on the TV a few nights ago and saw the madness of the new executive order, I felt not only bad for those families that were now separated from one another and also for those people now exiled, but I also felt that someone was stealing something that belonged to all immigrants as much as it belongs to the Americans in the “Heartland”, that someone was stealing our right to call this country home.
My mom existed in the States for decades as a permanent resident and if she had been born in one of the seven countries in the executive order, then she would have found herself barred from the country she was not only raising her son in, but also the country she was paying her taxes in. What if we were Muslims instead of Christians? What if we were from the Middle East instead of from the Caribbean? What if we were Syrian instead of Jamaican? Hell, what if we were Syrian-Jamaican as some of my friends back in Jamaica were? What if I was a child expecting to feel what I always feel when I go to the airport to pick up a loved one, or even, to get off the plane and be met by a loved one, and then all of a sudden a customs officer, one without a smile, takes my family and I to the side, and then locks us in a room for hours? How would that shape my understanding of America? And what if I saw my parents interrogated like they were criminals, treated as if they had done something wrong? What if….
When I was a teenager and having one of my many identity crises, I told a friend, after a trip I took down South, that I decided New York was not really America, but that it was more like a last port of call before coming to America. Down there, I told him, you get a sense of American culture you don’t get in New York. He, being one of those wise teenage boys who could not only fight like a man but could think like one as well, told me I had it all wrong. He said that just because our parents or maybe some of us were born someplace else, this does not mean that we are not Americans. Think of it, he said, our families chose the States to come to and settle in and live out their dreams. This was a conscious decision on their part, to leave behind everything they knew, to travel halfway across the world and start again, most of the time starting again with nothing. How can anyone say that a person who is willing to go through all of that is not American because they were not born in the “Heartland”?! And, just because we may not sound like someone from Virginia or eat what they eat or listen to the same kind of music they listen to, this does not make us any less American. Where the hell is it written that all Americans must act the same way?! And besides, he added. If we have to pass a litmus test for our American identity, then so do all those other “Americans”, the ones who cannot point to the Siberian straits as their point of entry into the United States!
I watched the TV this morning and saw a man who had risked his life for the United States, a man who had put not only his life on the line, but also the lives of his family on the line so as to help the American troops in Iraq. He spoke to the press about how he was treated when he got to the airport. This was a man who chose to make this country his home, a man who was violated by people who questioned his loyalty to the country he calls home. And as I watched him, one thought came to mind. What if every American, regardless of their religion or race or nationality or gender had to go through what he went through to prove their loyalty to the “Heartland”?
What if they were treated like criminals, interrogated at the airport, detained for hours, told they would be deported, unless they could prove that in their heart of hearts, they were truly loyal to the United States? What could we say or do to prove our loyalty? Could we say we interpreted for American soldiers in a war? Could we say we chose to work with American soldiers in the face of threats from our neighbors and fellow countrymen? Could we say we spent thousands of dollars to pay the countless fees required to process our immigration paperwork? Could we say we went through a process that took years to prove we weren’t a threat to the United States or its citizens? Could we say that we uprooted our lives in a country our family had lived in for generations so as to start anew in a country where we had no roots at all? Could we say that we had to start our lives over again in a place where many people hated us not only because of our nationality, but also because of our religion?
If we can’t say any of these things, then how could we prove our loyalty? Of course, many people can say they fought for this country and, literally through blood and tears and sweat, they have earned the right not to have their loyalty questioned. But the funny thing is that many of these people support gentleman like the man who was detained at the airport not to have his loyalty questioned either. And heck, if it is about blood, sweat and tears, then many people, who have fought for their civil rights, their human rights and their spiritual rights in this country, have also earned their right to not have their loyalty questioned as well!
I wonder what I would say if someone asked me to prove my loyalty to the United States. Would I tell them to go to hell? In this climate, I don’t think that would be the smart move. But what would I say? Would I tell them how my mother came up here with nothing to start all over again, to give her son opportunities that were not always available in Jamaica, and how she had to struggle for years, working in the day and going to school at night, to make this new life for her and her son in this country? Would I tell them all the fights I had with kids, because I didn’t sound like them or look like them and all the times I had to square off with other kids to prove that I had the same right to be here as they did? Maybe, if I was from one of the seven banned countries, they wouldn’t even listen to me. Maybe, they would meet me at Customs, pull me off the line, treat me like I had committed a crime, not allow me to call my family, lock me away for hours, handcuff me even, march me back to a plane and ship me out of the States.
And I would find myself back at the same point my mother started from forty something years ago, in a place my mother had decided to leave, so she could start our new life in the States, a new life that the executive order would no longer allow us to have.
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