A Letter to American Immigrants & Vistors

1 May

Dear Friend:

Don’t let anyone fool you. There is no American character for you to judge.

There are two.

We are a people who saw the holy promise of a City Upon The Hill and its freedom for those who might live there, then immediately brought slaves to build it for us. We open our hearts to all religions, but close our minds to those who have none.

Americans cherish our heritage of the vast frontier, its sublime wilderness and breathtaking beauty, yet build asphalt and concrete roads to every corner of it so we can lazily step from our RVs to snap that Kodak moment. We have a frontier imagination burdened by a TV beer belly.

Citizens of this great land will give their lives in battle overseas to save yours for words like “liberty” and “justice,” while doing nothing for their neighbors who lose their liberty through the injustice of inequitable laws. We salute the flag of freedom for all, but we pay homage to the banner of punishment for some.

This country, my friend, is not populated by men and women who see eye to eye on anything. For some, their worldview consists of taking an eye for an eye; for others it is about offering the other cheek when the first one is smited. Some will say that only by showing our strength can we stay free, while others will say war is never the answer. So it is not so strange, as you may think, that our country’s greatest war novel, The Red Badge of Courage, was written by a man who never witnessed battle.

Some will say we are best depicted in the sparse, tight prose of Hemingway and the tough-guy banter of Chandler. Others will argue that the languid, rolling, convoluted storytelling of Faulkner or the oblique, endless inferences of James describe us best. You can see us as the young, sexy, baudy spirits on “Must See TV,” or hear us as the middle-aged, uptight, dour souls on “Talk Radio.”

We are often a great-spirited people and a small-minded nation. We have leaders who can inspire us to climb the highest mountain. And we have others who embarrass us so much that we want to crawl under the nearest rock.

We are a brave James Meredith in a headline one day and a cowardly Bull Conner the next. We can lock arms and march to the liberating words of Susan B. Anthony, then get down on our knees and be humbled before Amiee Semple McPhearson. We make legends out of greedy killers like General Custer, while turning heroic fighters like Sitting Bull into enemies. We are Grant and we are Lee. We are George Washington and Benedict Arnold.

Americans are always in the act of becoming something, but just what, we cannot say because we just don’t know. We think nothing of borrowing freely from your immigrant character, taking what suits us, making it ours. That’s probably why you are often so comfortable to be around us. We are you, too. The good and the bad. Things you take pride in as well as things that shame you.

I wish I could bring to you the one, true American to meet and to judge. That way, when you met him you could shake his hand heartily. Or when you were introduced to her you could embrace her warmly. But that is not possible. To meet an American and size him or her up once and for all, you would have to meet two people, who bicker and nag each other, while complementing the other’s weaknesses and their strengths. It would frustrate you. It frustrates us.

You see, my friend, there never has been an American character. There never will be. We are two people sharing the same country, the same body politic, the same immortal soul. And that has made us difficult to live with because you never know whom you will meet when we drop by for a visit or when you come ashore. Our Statue of Liberty raises her arm in warm greeting if you should venture our way, but the “Welcome” mat has been removed from so many of our doorsteps. It makes you wonder: who are these people?

If it comes as any solace to you, we also do not know who we are. And, I suspect, we never will. That is why we continue to seek out new frontiers, new challenges. We know, in our hearts, we will never find our one, true self. So we search for a better place, a better tomorrow for our conflicted selves to dwell. We will search the solar system and we will explore the seas, often for the promise of prosperity, but just as often, my friend, for the sheer possibility of hope.

Please enjoy your stay, however long it may be.

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3 Responses to “A Letter to American Immigrants & Vistors”

  1. gevin shaw May 13, 2010 at 6:31 pm #

    “We the People” did away with a divinely appointed head of state and a legislative house appointed by mere congress, and created one of the great questions of our history. We made everyone equal (more or less) and we’ve been trying to figure out if that means everyone’s a king or all of us are peons. Are we each a country unto himself or are we all an indistiguishable part of the whole? Every infringement on uninhibited liberty enslaves us, or infinitely expands our freedom.

    (I have a current preference for Catch-22.)

  2. meh2meh May 13, 2010 at 7:56 pm #

    “Every infringement on uninhibited liberty enslaves us, or infinitely expands our freedom.”

    Like a Buddhist koan, perplexing & insightful.

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  1. Tweets that mention A Letter to American Immigrants & Vistors « Words Words Words by Mark Everett Hall -- Topsy.com - May 2, 2010

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Mark Everett Hall. Mark Everett Hall said: My most recent essay/blog: A Letter to American Immigrants & Visitors http://bit.ly/dde0cu #boycottAZ #immigrants […]

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