By Antonia Williams-Gary
In the words of James Baldwin: “I can’t be a pessimist; I am alive. “ Therefore, I will survive how American got trumped.
And with that, I must declare that while it has been very difficult to keep a positive attitude about being American (what else can I be?), I am not leaving! And as tempting some other places may look or sound, upon close and detailed examination, not so much.
Mr. Baldwin reminds me that I am the quintessential American, and that without me (my ancestors), there would be no America.
I am reminded of that fact every day whenever I calculate the price my forefathers and foremothers paid to keep me out of those land mines of degradation and self- negation; and/or out of those work fields so richly fertilized with my ancestors’ blood, sweat and tears, often littered with lynched black bodies- all in partial payment for preserving my soul.
I am reminded about the value of my being an American citizen today when I don’t have to anguish over mine, or my family’s fate if we chose to travel in and out of the country; at least for today.
I think about what my grandchildren will have to face in their individual climbs up the corporate ranks- having been sold on the so-called American dream: “making it” as a result of hard work and determination. I hope the message of our history is not so watered down by the time they get entangled in becoming ‘successful’, still measured by the American standard of material wealth.
But I must not become a pessimist. I am alive.
Yet, I am constantly reminded of my four hundred year old hyphenated- American persona whenever I start a conversation with anyone with the slightest accent (in Texas, the native English-speakers sound foreign to me). My first or second question is usually, “What country are you from?”
I have to admit that when I meet a newcomer, I enjoy a certain degree of smugness from knowing that I have a long history here; that my roots are deep- plowed and cultivated by a long line that goes back to June (Williams) who in 1795, as documented, started my father’s fathers clan.
Then I must pause and remember that my mother’s family roots began in the Bahamas and just arrived on these shores in the 1880s. They were immigrants who came to America to gain greater economic standing, period. Ah, so I am an immigrant, too.
I re-listened to the prophetic words of James Baldwin, whose writings from the 1950s-1980s are enjoying a renaissance with the release of the Oscar nominated documentary: I am Not Your Negro, now showing in theaters across the nation (in time for the Academy Awards show later this month).
In this film, which has joined the important chain of documented black history, Baldwin anticipates a black president- because we have been good Americans.
What is a good black American? Well, for one consideration, we did not kill the oppressors when we were the majority in the south.
And, we have conformed to American norms for far longer than any other new group. Baldwin’s speech is peppered with references to this country as being our America; he insists that we are the Americans.
Baldwin states that we are all tied together as Americans: black and white (and all the other coloreds); and that our plight is America’s plight. He speaks especially about how white Americans are tied to us, and we to them in a perpetual battle that will continue until we get the history of this country right! It is the history of how Africans became American, and how our free labor built the industries and infrastructure of America, so that we are entitled to everything promised in the constitution and from all its laws, and that we are here.
This past Sunday, we all had an opportunity to celebrate our ideal American values during the Super Bowl- the most watched sports spectacle that demonstrated the power and might of our country which was played out between two football teams. This year’s commercials were more highly anticipated for political messages, and commentary is ongoing.
My favorite was the NFL’s. It was a simple, yet profound outline drawing of the continental USA during which a voice over invited us to consider who Americans are- between the lines.
I just hope, because I can’t be a pessimist, the NFL message is taken to heart.
Baldwin said, be alive. The new generation says, stay woke.