Terrance Heath

America Will Be ...

Filed By Terrance Heath | May 17, 2008 1:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Living, Marriage Equality, Politics, Politics
Tags: California, California State Supreme Court, marriage, marriage equality

I knew as soon as the California Supreme Court marriage ruling was posted that I would read the whole thing. I started reading it at my desk after it was posted but stopped once I got to the "bottom line" of the ruling. And truly, as I realized what I was reading and what the California Supreme Court had said, the emotion was too much.

I wasn't born when the Brown v. Board of Education ruling was handed down, so I don't know what it was like for those Black Americans who heard it or read it and realized what the court had done. But I think I have an idea, based on what I felt yesterday after reading the decision.

I know it was a state supreme court decision, and one that doesn't apply to me all the way over here on the other side of the country. But yesterday, reading the decision, I felt a little bit more like an American. And maybe even just a little proud of my country.

This is something that occurred to me yesterday as I was walking home. Reading the CA Supremes ruling yesterday, and thinking about my own feelings, I thought about Michelle Obama's comments about finally being proud of America. I understood what she meant then, but even more-so after yesterday's ruling.

Yesterday, I finally felt just a little proud to be an American. Finally.

To understand where someone like Michelle Obama is coming from- or yours truly for that matter- you have to look a America through the prism of someone without the privileges upon which it was founded from the beginning; from the perspective of people for whom the promises of being an American in America have been historically held out of reach.

From that perspective, pride in America is based more on its strides towards what it could become- were it to live up to all it promises to be on paper, for all its citizens- than what it is or where it is at the present moment. America is something different for, say, Cindy McCain than is is for Michelle Obama or than it is for me.

In some ways, we're proud of an America that has yet to be- and that we hope will be someday. Langston Huges probably said it best.

Let America be America again. Let it be the dream it used to be. Let it be the pioneer on the plain Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed-- Let it be that great strong land of love Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath, But opportunity is real, and life is free, Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There's never been equality for me, Nor freedom in this "homeland of the free.")

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark? And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

O, let America be America again-- The land that never has been yet-- And yet must be--the land where every man is free. The land that's mine--the poor man's, Indian's, Negro's, ME-- Who made America, Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain, Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain, Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose-- The steel of freedom does not stain. From those who live like leeches on the people's lives, We must take back our land again, America!

O, yes, I say it plain, America never was America to me, And yet I swear this oath-- America will be!

People who point to Michelle Obama's privileged lifestyle forget that whether her current lifestyle was always her lifestyle, she grew up a black child and became a black woman in the America that was and is not the America that will be. (Perhaps it's safer to say the America that can be.) She has almost surely seen much to make one less than proud. And, as I remember the pictures of her reunion with her South Carolina relatives - having grown up in the south myself - I know she must have relatives who have witnessed much that wouldn't inspire pride and she's listened to their stories.

From her perspective, how much hope must be inspired by the reality that her husband is the first black (or brown) man to have a real shot at becoming president? How much hope that wasn't there before? How much hope that was nursed, unfulfilled for generations, until this moment? How much hope, nursed on an abiding faith that American can be - will be - all it has promised to be someday?

I was a high school student when the Bowers v. Hardwick decision came down. As a gay person, I felt divorced from the constitution and my country. It wasn't until Lawrence v. Texas that anything changed for me, and by then I'd seen and heard much that didn't inspire pride. But something shifted a little yesterday, and now I have a "wait-and-see" attitude.

Peggy Noonan recently asked "Who would have taught Barrack Obama to love his country?" My experience is that plenty of people will tell you that you should love your country, and will speak at length about why. But depending on who you are, you may learn to love your country but experience will have taught you to sometimes love it - and hold it - at arms' length.

If I feel pride, it's not the same as might be expected, but closer to what Booman said.

Where did I learn to love my country? Who taught me to love it? What did I find loveable? I'm not even sure of the answer, although my parents and my teachers and the programs I watched on television and the books I chose to read all played a part. I learned to love the Constitution of the United States. I learned to respect and admire the Founding Fathers of this country, despite all their flaws. I came to understand that our Republic was something new and fragile, and that it needed protection from both within and without. And I, of course, learned to love the area that I grew up in, and all the wonderful national parks around the country that I visited during summer vacations as a child. And I loved baseball and football, and mint chocolate chip ice cream. In other words, I learned to love my country the same way that Barack Obama learned to love it...by growing up here and learning a little history.

I'll tell you another thing. I don't normally get my pride and my love off of the accomplishments of others. I do have pride and love for our Constitution and our system of governance, but my love of country has nothing to do with the gold miners that forced the Native Americans off their land in violation of treaties, nor with the Nazi-sympathizer Henry Ford, nor even with the enterprising Wright Brothers. I'm all for clean-running trains, planes, and automobiles, but I don't love my country because of them. I wouldn't die for my country to preserve the internal combustion engine. I'd die to preserve the Constitution. And by Constitution, I do not mean the Estate Tax, Peggy. Or whatever other supply-side economic policy you think made it possible for Americans to figure out air travel.

Yesterday, I heard a whisper of an America that never was to me and that I hope will be. Inspired now, I will work harder to make it so.

Crossposted from The Republic of T.

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Thank you for that really personal look at the decision. I had much of the same response. It was like a small spark of pride in the possiblity of this country could be. I gives me hope.

crescentdave crescentdave | May 17, 2008 2:02 PM

Thank you so much, Terrance, for this beautifully personal essay. It brought me to tears as I thought about our ancestors, our pioneers who struck out for the right to express who they were against all odds and in the face of an unreasoning hatred and violence this country has yet to stop supporting, albeit at more discrete levels. I had forgotten Langston Hughes' poem on America ... and it is such a fine, strong piece of writing and such a noble sentiment. Whether we wish to marry or not, believe in marriage or not ... it is now a fact and not a hope, that even within the walls of an institution founded upon the letter of the law, these words can forevermore be cited:

Here, we decide only the scope of the equal protection guarantee under the state Constitution, which operates independently of the federal Constitution. (See Cal. Const., art I, § 24 [“Rights guaranteed by this Constitution are not dependent on those guaranteed by the United States Constitution”].) Absent a compelling justification, our state government may not deny a right as fundamental as marriage to any segment of society. Whether an unconstitutional denial of a fundamental right has occurred is not a matter to be decided by the executive or legislative branch, or by popular vote, but is instead an issue of constitutional law for resolution by the judicial branch of state government. Indeed, this court’s decision in Lockyer made it clear that the courts alone must decide whether excluding individuals from marriage because of sexual orientation can be reconciled with our state Constitution’s equal protection guarantee. (Lockyer, supra, 33 Cal.4th at pp. 1068-1069.) The court today discharges its constitutional obligation by resolving that issue.

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | May 17, 2008 10:20 PM

Terrence, Thank you.

When Michelle Obama stated that she was proud of America for the first time as an adult segments of the media pounced on it. Republicans I know, pointed to it, and I responded: "Well, there was never a relative of mine who was lynched, either. If you have a relative who was lynched, you can question her patriotism."

As I was one year old when Brown was decided I can point to having gone to an integrated school with pride, but even there, my black classmates were separate, but equal. Teachers disciplined black children (who comprised 20% of my classmates) two out of three times such punishments were doled out with a paddle. The number of "swats" seemed greater and louder. This was in Michigan City Indiana. Voted an "All American City," in 1962.

Much we have accomplished and much remains to be done.

Great response, Robert. It's silly, but these people make it seem that not having patriotism right off the back for no reason at all is the absolute worse thing at all. Patriotism, to them, is supposed to be knee-jerk and automatic, and, if it isn't, you're a horrible person.

It's amazing that these people are so transparent. Jeez, rich and powerful people are telling us that we're supposed to feel unconditional loyalty to the rich and powerful. I wonder what their goal is....

Seriously, still mad at America myself. And if McCain gets elected in November, it's over between us!

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | May 18, 2008 10:30 AM

Alex, remember why so many people want to come to America. Yes, in 1960 the gap between the poor and the wealthy was one dollar to thirty five. Today the gap between wealthy and poor is one dollar to seventy five, but still, the opportunities in America, are so much greater and less dependent upon class and social restrictions. Talk to an Indian, Korean, Hispanic or Chinese business person sometime. Our problem in America are the dullards who are born there and don't scratch to find the opportunities and education they need.

I mentored a young black man who was the son of my secretary in Chicago for a summer while he was away from his junior college. He had a summer job in my business. When I gave him a copy of a book Langston Hughes had written and wrote on the inside cover:

"You can never understand what your people are going through until you appreciate what they have been through"

He acted insulted, did not get it, never heard of Langston Hughes, and fortunately an older black man was present to explain to him what I meant, by what I wrote, saving me that embarrassment. He was the youngest child born to his mother in the United States and to say he had a lack of work ethic would be generous.

Meanwhile I have known Asians who starved in their youth, managed to get to the United States, obtain an education and go on to great accomplishment. America means everything to them. Much as I like to thing about what I would prefer to be different I know the alternatives for many are horrible.

Agreed, Terrance. I'm finally a little proud too.

Michelle Obama was audacious enough to allude to something that most whites in America are loathe to consider: You wrote a great Constitution, but for centuries you failed to live by it.

Jeremiah Wright was audacious enough to point it out, also.

Very few white people are willing to admit, to even consider, that the ethnocentric white race fucked up when it came to its treatment of Black Africans, that it fucked up in its treatment of the Native Americans, that it fucked up in its regard to Asian-Americans ... and that they even fucked up when it came to treating each other civilly. Instead, the religiously persecuted proceeded to religiously persecute others (even other whites), the British felt obligated to fight the French and the Spaniards, (the early Germans somehow managed to take over parts of Pennsylvania and the Ohio Valley in relatively peaceful ways) ... and with aristocratic hautiness, we had the nerve to hypocritically sign our names to a document that said it is "self-evident ... all men are created equal" and then proceed on to another document that both tolerated and accommodated slavery.

Some white men, such as Benjamin Franklin, were aware of what a travesty this was ... but despite their best efforts, they did not prevail for many decades more.

It is no coincidence of history that the American Civil Rights Movement commenced on the heals of World War II. WW-II was the first war that sent large numbers of Black soldiers to Europe, to be treated while there as the heroes that they actually were, only to return them back to Jim Crow America. It is no coincidence of history that it was this generation of Blacks that questioned what they had fought for, and realized that the America that they had served didn't even really exist yet.

There are a small few of us white folk, Terrence, who understand what Black people are saying. And for pointing this out, I expect that sometime tomorrow someone will refer to me once again as a "nigger-lover." Oh well, the Dali Llama still refuses to hate the Chinese. They will also accuse me of something, some nonsense, they call liberal white guilt.

And as the mainstream white folk continue on in their insistence at fucking up, in the present day, in their treatment of Latino immigrants, and Arab-Americans, and Muslim-Americans, I wish I could say that more of us privileged white folks have learned these lessons ... but I'd be lying, and you would know it.

Increasingly, it is exactly the white Americans that insist that I be proud to be an American that make me not so proud to be a white American --- and it is the Black, the brown, the non-Christian and the immigrant who continue to struggle that convince me that there is still hope for this land I was born in. Since I'm gay, they say I don't belong here either, and in that sense my being gay is truly a gift, evidence of divine grace despite all the pain that has come with it, having prodded me on to realize things that the privileged mainstream individuals in the privileged mainstream race can afford to refuse to see.

America will someday be America. Unfortunately, Langston Hughes did not live to see it. Unfortunately, Dr. King warned us he might not get there along with the others, and he didn't. Unfortunately, you might not. Unfortunately, I probably won't either. But it is the vision itself that can make us all proud.

I didn't write this to show how bombastic I can be. I wrote it to show that when Black people say such things, some white people do really get it.

Or at least, some of us are beginning to.