By conservative estimates, there are currently enough wrongfully convicted people in prison in the United States to fill a football stadium.
Subscribe and Save up to 55%
It has been a hard week for you. The divorce papers are filed, and your heart is adrift. Also you have sold a piece of property you once promised not to sell. You deposit the check in the afternoon, climb into the pickup truck, and drive east until you smell the sea.
The first night, you have a bottle of rye, a cheap hotel room overlooking the Bogue Sound, and a slim volume of Barry Lopez stories for company. You sleep in your clothes, crosswise on the narrow bed.
In the morning you leave before daylight and hike for hours down the Neusiok Trail, through cypress swamps and longleaf-pine forests. You stop only to write in your journal or to examine an unusual plant. You are in a groove, one trail-step ahead of your pain.
About eight miles in you come across a canebrake rattlesnake. She waits until you are just a few feet away before she announces herself, her body a dark curl, the vibrating rattle held above her head like a stinger, its sound as definitive as a shotgun blast. But then she relaxes — you’re no threat — and contemplates you for a long moment, uncoiling, curious. Something in you uncoils, too, and you move on.
Just a mile or so before the trail crosses a highway, you encounter a wide, lush bottomland filled with giant beech trees. It is so beautiful you walk it twice, back and forth.
When you reach the highway, you have a problem. There are just a couple of hours of daylight left. Suddenly a soft bed and a good meal are very appealing, but you are fifteen or twenty miles from your truck. There are no cabs around here.
You stick out your thumb without much hope and head east. An hour or so later a battered pickup stops. A pair of white men in work clothes insist you squeeze into the front seat. They have a small cooler of beer on the floorboard. These men agree to drive you to the camp where you parked, pretending they were heading in that direction anyway. They are friendly and brash and remind you of your mountain cousins. The younger man has just enlisted in the Army and has strong opinions about the world, but this part of the conversation soon passes, and they begin to tell you amusing stories of alcohol, foolishness, and guns. You laugh a lot, uncoil just a little more. The world is full of medicine, you think.
At the camp they pull up behind your pickup. You notice them reading your collection of bumper stickers: Roots Power (in Rasta colors), Make Love Not War (with a classic sixties daisy design), and International Terrorist (with a picture of George W. Bush).
The two men look at you. The older one hands you a cold beer and says, “It’s good for you that we saw you before we saw your truck,” and they both laugh and drive away. You wave from the dusty road and then sit on the tailgate and drink your first Budweiser in a long time.
It tastes good.
Silk Hope, North Carolina
I’m an American, born in 1954 in Starkville, Mississippi. This is my country.
It was my country before I learned that a relative of mine had been sold at a Virginia auction. It was my country before I learned that my great-great-great-grandfather had represented my hometown in the Mississippi legislature during Reconstruction. It was my country when I was two years old and the sheriff’s deputies stormed our home, guns drawn, calling Daddy a “nigger.” Apparently they were looking for the former tenants, who had skipped town owing somebody money. When the officers finally realized their mistake, they left without a backwards glance or an apology. It was my country when Mommy took me to my first movie, Lassie Come Home, and we had to take the stairs outside to the “buzzard’s roost.” It was my country when, from my front yard, I could hear children playing at a school I could not attend. It was my country when I became friends with a white girl who lived nearby, and her father said she was to “never let that nigger in this house, and you stay out of hers!” It was my country when a high-school classmate declared, “When coloreds and whites marry, they have polka-dotted children!”
In my teen and young-adult years I was positive that “Black American patriot” was an oxymoron. Yet I remember my entire family gathering to watch the moon landing, filled with pride that Americans had done this. We hung red-white-and-blue bunting for the bicentennial in 1976, and I even made a sheet cake decorated like our flag.
America is my country. I live here, I was born here, I will die here. This is my country because her soil holds the blood, sweat, and tears of my ancestors. Because my father wore her uniform in Korea, my great-uncle wore her uniform in World War II, and my cousins wore her uniform in Vietnam. My country has never been the “sweet land of liberty,” but it is most assuredly the “land where my fathers died.”
This is my home, my heart, my hope, my love, my faith, and it will be my final resting place.
I am an American, and this is my country.
Robbi Banks Jenkins
As the chilly March evening descends, I decide I’ve done enough spring cleaning in the garden. I head inside, sniffling and sore, and notice guiltily that the shine of my pruners is now hidden beneath layers of grimy brown sap. These costly Swiss-made beauties were a gift. I can’t believe I’ve let them get this grungy.
I scrub the blades with warm, soapy water until something like their original luster returns. The slow process brings to mind my dad sharpening tools, or polishing his aging work shoes, or rebuilding the engine on the truck; my mom shining the silver, or mending a tablecloth, or dyeing a pair of faded black pants.
This country was built by people who took care of their things, who had few possessions, who made do, who devoted hours to the work of maintenance. These days we often spend hours reading reviews of new products so cheap it seems simpler, when something gets worn, just to buy new. Why take care of something that’ll be broken or obsolete in a few years?
But now that we’re sheltering at home because of the coronavirus, it’s harder to run out and buy things, and harder to afford them. A neighbor walked by earlier as I worked in our front yard. We traded tales of how we’re spending our time. “I’m cleaning stuff I didn’t even know I had!” he said and laughed.
I imagine we’re all taking inventory these days — of our supplies, of our finances, of our work, of the way we’ve spent our lives.
With an old rag I blot the blades, careful not to wipe off the oil at their hinge. This perfect machine I hold will help me prune the peach trees, improving their yield. One less thing to buy. One more thing to care for, value, and share. I’m relearning what this country used to know.
My family moved to the U.S. from Hong Kong when I was two. Growing up, I lived in two different worlds. Inside my house I was in China. When I stepped out my front door, I was in America. Inside my house I gobbled down my grandma’s white rice, bok choy, and whole fish steamed with scallions and soy sauce — skin, head, eyeballs, and all. Outside my house I devoured peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches, Oreo cookies, and Sunkist orange soda. Inside my house I spoke fluent Cantonese with family members who struggled to learn English. Outside my house I heard strange sounds from the mouths of people who didn’t look like me. The first time I heard my kindergarten teacher speak English, I thought she just spoke terrible Chinese. But by the second grade the unintelligible sounds had become coherent sentences. Inside my house I received lai see — red envelopes stuffed with money — for the Chinese New Year, and I prayed with my family, making offerings of oranges, chicken, and buns to my ancestors at a makeshift altar in the dining room. Outside my house I outlined my hand on construction paper to draw Thanksgiving turkeys and bought perfume for “secret Santa” at Christmas.
I looked Chinese, but I felt American. My parents accused me of being a jook-sing — “empty bamboo,” a derogatory term for people who favor Western culture over Chinese traditions. I increasingly challenged my parents’ customs: sometimes inadvertently, other times deliberately. I insisted on washing my hair on Chinese New Year, even though the Chinese believe that doing so washes away your good fortune.
My family thought I was too American, but on the school playground the other kids didn’t see me as American at all. They taunted me for how I looked, how I talked. “Ching chong, ching chong,” they sneered, pulling the corners of their eyes up into a slant.
When I visited my birth country at the age of twenty-five, I looked like everyone around me for the first time in my life, but I felt foreign. When I returned to the U.S., I didn’t look like everyone around me, but I felt like a native. I grew up in two different worlds, not quite sure which was mine.
Now, at fifty, I have finally created a blended identity that captures the best of both cultures. My diet is a delicious amalgam of Asian and American foods. My philosophy is a fusion of meditation from the East and a Western forthrightness. Instead of having one foot in each world, I have both my feet securely planted in the culture I’ve created for myself. My country is not a place. It is a balanced state of mind.
In the U.S. more than a hundred people die from gun-related injuries every day. My grandfather was almost one of them.
When I was six, my grandfather was shot twice by a man who should not have been sold a gun. This man had known mental illnesses but was still able to legally buy a firearm.
Six people died when he opened fire in Tucson, Arizona, on January 8, 2011, and thirteen were injured, including my grandfather. He is alive today only because others in the crowd applied pressure to his wounds to keep him from bleeding out.
My mom spent a week at the hospital with my grandpa. I was afraid that a shooter was waiting around every corner. My brother began sleeping with his Nerf guns because it made him feel a little safer.
My grandfather can no longer walk quickly. He can no longer go to loud restaurants because of his post-traumatic stress. His life, like many others, has been forever changed by gun violence, because in my country gun rights are more important than human lives.
I’m visiting Cairo for the third time, studying antiquities at the Egyptian Museum. I have always found Egyptians to be gracious people. Still, in the ten years since my last visit, a lot has changed. Political leaders have taken to blaming the U.S. for a wide variety of problems, and there is talk of CIA meddling.
In the lobby of my hotel, instead of the mix of Brits and Germans I remember from previous trips, a crowd of brawny guys speaking what sounds like Russian have claimed the bar. I assume they are in Egypt to run big construction projects. I manage to have a short conversation with one and learn he is Ukrainian. He says America is nothing but cowboys and gangsters. All he knows about my country seems to come from movies. Still, it’s hard to argue with him. There is a lot of brutally selfish behavior in the U.S.
On another evening, walking back to the hotel from the museum, I get lost and end up on a dimly lit street. Young people dressed like laborers pass me, and one whispers, “American,” with such bitterness it stings. I realize I’m in real trouble if these men decide to pursue me. I get back to the hotel unscathed, but my sense of the world has shifted. After that, I’m careful to leave the museum early and arrive back at the hotel before dark.
No harm comes to me, but for the first time I experience what it’s like to be hated for reasons that are not of my making. When it’s time to leave, I’m glad to be heading back to my own country.
Santa Barbara, California
I have never understood why people take pride in being American. Don’t misunderstand: I am glad to be American. I could have been born in a country shattered by war or where women are stoned to death for having sex outside of marriage. Being glad is not the same as being proud, though. I take pride in my accomplishments, like when my English-composition students progress from barely writing a decent paragraph to writing a well-argued essay. But I have done nothing to earn my status as an American.
I was lucky enough to have an American father and to come to the U.S. as a baby, though I was born in Israel to an Israeli mother. My family lived on a hippie commune until my parents made enough money to move to the suburbs. I did well on the SATs, went to a good college, and got jobs that paid decent money. Being an American has made these things possible for me.
If I had been born in Syria, or Afghanistan, or Nigeria, I might not have received these gifts. If I had been born in the U.S. but of a different race, or to different parents, I would still have been American, but my life would have turned out differently. What if I had been raised in a trailer with no running water, or under a bridge, homeless and addicted to heroin? I was born not just an American, but a privileged American. I had nothing to do with that. Any pride I feel will come not from my status but from what I do with it: using it to help others who are less lucky than I am.
Bloomingdale, New York
I was born in Pakistan. One day when I was five or six, my dad stumbled into the house with one sleeve of his kameez torn and covered in blood. My mom rushed me out of the room. I later learned there were political riots on the streets, and my dad had been shot in the arm.
A year later, in 2001, my parents decided to take us on a “summer vacation” to the United States. In reality we were seeking asylum as refugees. To provide for our family of five, my dad took any work that he could find. It was a trying time, but we were grateful to have found a safe haven — at least, until 9/11. The anti-Muslim sentiment that followed the terrorist attack was so pervasive that schoolchildren hurled insults at us. Our new home had become a hostile place, and my parents tried to shield us children from the trauma of that time. I remember my dad putting a sticker that read, Home Of The Brave, on our front door in an attempt to prove that we weren’t terrorists.
Years passed, and for the most part we integrated into American life. The anxiety of being aliens in this country became a faint memory. But to this day I feel tense when I’m asked, “Where are you from?”
Four years ago I convinced my family to join me on a trip to Peru. I had lived in the cloud forest there five years earlier, during a grad-school internship. Now I wanted to go back and explore some wonders I hadn’t had time to enjoy while I was working, such as Cuzco and Machu Picchu.
My family and I stayed at a cozy cottage with a flourishing garden and stunning views of the Andes Mountains. Our host enjoyed telling us about her experiences renting cottages to travelers and rescuing dogs in the neighborhood. When we told her we were from the U.S., she said how generous she found Americans to be. Generous? I thought. I had studied economics, political science, and international relations in college and global policy for my master’s degree. I’d been devastated to learn how my country’s greedy pursuits had damaged so many other nations. I hoped to be a part of undoing that damage in my work abroad.
Our host noticed my surprise and explained that many Americans came to her country wanting to help. She couldn’t think of any Peruvians who would go somewhere else to work for free just because it was a good thing to do.
I wanted to point out that it requires privilege — money and time — to volunteer in other countries. We can’t expect people living in poverty to think about how they could help others in distant parts of the world. And many of the places Americans volunteer have been harmed by U.S. policies. But I kept my thoughts to myself.
Though I still have mixed feelings, I have tried to focus on the positive side of our host’s perspective. My country’s political leaders and corporations have caused tremendous suffering across the globe, but my country is also filled with people who act as an opposing force, providing support to those who are less fortunate and advocating for change. The U.S. has a lot of work to do, but I believe the compassion of many will lead us in the right direction.
Although my family lived in Miami, my father was born in France and raised in Belgium, and he wouldn’t allow my sister and me to forget our francophone roots. He took our European citizenships seriously and never let our French or Belgian passports expire. We went to a French-American school, where we had to write in imported French notebooks and recite French poetry by heart. My friends’ parents were mostly French, and we always had a bûche de Noël for dessert on Christmas, galette des rois for Three Kings Day, and tarte aux pommes for birthdays. In the summers my father sent my sister and me to stay with our cousins in Europe, where we made jam from the groseilles we picked by the bucketful and watched French reality-TV shows.
At home my father’s constant refrain was “Parle en français.” Speak in French. But my maternal grandfather, an immigrant from Cuba, also lived with us. He recited José Martí’s poetry as he made us our merienda — after-school snack. My great-uncle, Tío Felo, lived next door with his wife, Tía Ruby, who made the best arroz con pollo. (It’s all about the pegado — the burnt part at the bottom of the pan.) Holidays were spent at Tía Lydia’s house, where we enjoyed Cuban staples such as ropa vieja, yuca frita, arroz con frijoles negros, and tostones.
I grew up bombarded with conflicting messages: You’re French. You’re Cuban. My parents kept these lineages alive for my sister and me, surrounding us with heirlooms and photographs of our ancestors. Yet my sister and I had been born in New Orleans.
Today I am grateful that my father gave me the gift of his language so that I can have a rich relationship with my relatives across the Atlantic. But as a child I struggled to understand how I contained so many countries within me.
When I was eight or nine, I asked my mother, “Am I American?”
My mother laughed. “Of course you are!” she said. “You’re an American. I’m an American. We’re both Americans.”
I’m now married to a German, and we’re expecting a baby. I want our child to learn the languages of his or her ancestors and the cultures of the countries that have shaped our family history. Although it may be difficult to explain to our offspring that they’re German-American-French-Belgian-Cuban, we’ll do our best.
“Papa Tater,” as he called himself, was a potato farmer from Minnesota — a big man with a big potato operation that extended as far west as Idaho. I met him while he and I were vacationing at the same resort in Mexico. With his ruddy face, unkempt white hair, and sunburned belly, he seemed like someone who might play Santa Claus at a shopping mall. We bumped into each other at the pool bar. After realizing we were both from Minnesota, we started a conversation, which quickly turned to politics. In a matter of minutes he proclaimed that “we Trump supporters need to stick together.”
I had to admit that I’m not a fan of Donald Trump. In fact, I loathe the man.
Papa Tater was a lot like my small-town neighbors back home in rural Minnesota, the kind of people who have worked hard, who have thick calluses on their hands and dirt under their fingernails: farmers and tradesmen and truckers and assembly-line operators. These are the people who fly the American flag and cheer for the hometown team.
Papa Tater was quick in his defense of Donald Trump: “The way I see it,” he said, “is that they’re all a bunch of crooks in Washington. We might as well have the biggest crook in charge.”
Only in America.
Leave it to a tiny, invisible terrorist like the coronavirus to teach us the fallacy of borders. What the president famously dubbed the “Chinese virus” quickly became everyone’s virus. It passes from place to place, tucked away in a warm body until the next hand unwittingly picks it up. That hand could move millions of dollars at the touch of a button or spend its days outstretched on a street corner. That hand could be attaching your mother to a ventilator or harvesting the food you will eat next week.
Across the globe we are taking similar precautions, because we are all one people united against a common enemy. Neighbors cheer each other up by singing out of windows; teachers ride by their students’ homes and wave from a safe distance. Medical heroes wear protective gear no matter where they live.
Most of us believe that the actions we take will directly affect how many people get sick. We see the number of documented cases increase each day — and, with it, the number of people who have died. The pandemic has proven that a critical threat can get many people to change their behavior.
Now that we have had this experience, perhaps we will call upon this sense of unity to tackle other global threats. Once the rate of COVID-19 infection slows, once we develop a vaccine and people can cautiously resume normal lives, maybe we will realize that our actions also dictate how long our precious descendants will be able to live safely on the planet. Climate change will disrupt life on Earth more than any virus, and it will not respect borders either.
New Orleans, Louisiana
I turned twenty-one in October 1999. I was living outside New York City with my boyfriend, and the world was on the brink of Y2K, the computer glitch expected to disrupt systems worldwide. People were hoarding food and planning for the end of global communication. Meanwhile an outbreak of West Nile virus was causing people to stay indoors as planes flew over our neighborhood spraying toxic pesticides. An incredibly simpleminded man named George W. Bush was running for president. He couldn’t even form a proper sentence.
In early December my boyfriend and I escaped this chaos by relocating to Belize, where we lived on a tropical island, ate coconuts for breakfast, and went fishing for dinner. Y2K came and went. The power where we lived did go out on New Year’s Eve, but no one cared because it often went out for hours at a time. People celebrated together in the darkened streets.
Every thirty days we needed to leave the country to renew our passports. One month we decided to go study Spanish at a school in the Petén region of Guatemala. For two weeks we lived with an aging woman in her modest cement house with wooden shutters and a pit toilet out back. The food was meager, but we were grateful for her efforts to make us feel comfortable.
One day we heard a commotion outside. A large truck with a white canvas tarp covering the back was parked on the narrow cobblestone street. People slowly climbed out of the truck, and word spread that they were a group of Salvadorans trying to reach the U.S. They had been found in the jungle just outside of town, and the local authorities were awaiting instructions on where to take them. Their prospects, we were told, were grim. My boyfriend and I watched helplessly as the group waited with fear on their faces.
Then local women emerged from their homes with warm tortillas wrapped in colorful cloths and plastic bags of water. The Salvadorans graciously accepted the offerings. Tears streamed down my face as I watched this silent exchange.
Within the hour the Salvadorans were gone, but the experience had deeply affected me. These were people who risked their lives for a chance to live in a country that I had abandoned. The only real difference between us was that I held a small blue book with a gold eagle on the cover, and they did not.
When I returned to the U.S. six months later, I entered the country with a different attitude than when I’d left: I was humbled. I was grateful. I might not always like the decisions made by the people who run this place, but I’ve never again taken my U.S. citizenship for granted.
Keene Valley, New York
In the summer of 2017 Bernie Sanders held a postelection, keep-fighting-the-good-fight rally in my Kentucky hometown. Although we had refrained from attending any campaign events, my mom and I thought we could use a pick-me-up after Donald Trump’s first six months in office. While parking our car near the convention center, we noticed our neighbor Dan and his wife in the parking lot. Dan’s large blue pickup truck is hard to miss, especially when he’s flying his oversize MAGA flag from the bed.
Dan and his wife are generous, mild-mannered people. On more than one occasion he has cut our grass or cleaned our gutters just because he noticed it needed doing. My mom has spent many summer nights chatting with him over the fence while watering her garden, and for several years his family and ours cared for a stray cat. If it weren’t for the MAGA flag on his truck and the collection of anti–Hillary Clinton bumper stickers on his wife’s red sedan, we would never have suspected our neighbors of being Trump supporters. During the run-up to the 2016 election, we carried along being neighborly, even after my mom proudly planted a Hillary sign in our front yard.
As my mom and I waited in line outside the convention center, the big blue truck started its slow parade down the street, MAGA flag flapping.
“They shouldn’t be here,” said the woman behind us.
My mom turned and said brightly, “Actually, they’re our neighbors, and they’re really nice people!” And as Dan and his wife passed, they waved at us and smiled.
The country I love is being run by a man I hate. As we approach another contentious election, I hope my neighbors and I will continue to smile when we see each other.
Park Hills, Kentucky
When I moved back to California after having worked abroad for twenty-five years, I was shocked that homelessness had become part of the landscape. Not long ago, on a visit to Berkeley, I walked past a group of homeless people gathered on a busy street corner and saw a frail, elderly man in a wheelchair wearing nothing but a soiled adult diaper. A few days later I read an article in the Los Angeles Times about firefighters working to treat homeless people on Skid Row. The description of a man with an infected leg wound crawling with maggots horrified me.
It’s shameful that such abject misery not only exists but is tolerated in the U.S., where so many indulge in a false narrative of opportunity for all, demonize the poor and vulnerable, and boast that this is the richest and greatest nation in the world.
In June 1967, just after graduating from high school, I was scheduled to be sworn in as a U.S. citizen. I was also working my first job that didn’t require me to stoop over in rows of crops under the blistering sun. Mamá bought me a coral polyester shift dress for the citizenship ceremony, which I could also wear to my office job as an intern at the Bureau of Land Management. My hiring was part of a federal “minority outreach” program. I didn’t call myself a minority. I called myself mejicana, Mexican and proud. Frieda, a young Black woman — also proud — was the other intern. We typed letters, made carbon copies, and helped with payroll for seasonal workers, mostly Mexican men who fought wildfires on government lands.
Frieda and I also raised and lowered the flag each day. I enjoyed watching it wave in the breeze as it descended. To keep the flag from hitting the ground, I’d catch it in my arms. Then, with Frieda’s help, I’d fold it into a firm triangle. Despite all my school days of pledging allegiance, I’d never felt the flag was majestic until Frieda and I held it in our hands.
On June 8 in a county courtroom, I stood with six others who were to become U.S. citizens: five black-haired mejicanos and one blond white woman. We raised our right hands.
A judge led our group in recitation of the Oath of Allegiance: “I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty, of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen. . . .”
To make sure we understood, the judge gave us a worst-case scenario: If the U.S. were at war with our birth country, did we pledge to take the side of the United States? The blond woman said, “It’s difficult.” She still had family back home. So did I. Images of my wiry, stoic grandparents flashed through my mind. In the end the blond woman said she would. The rest of us said the same.
After we finished the oath, the judge congratulated us, and a crowd of friends and family applauded.
No one from my family was present. My parents were picking strawberries a day’s drive away. As migrant farmworkers, they were busy during harvest season. No work meant no money. I, as an entry-level government worker, had taken paid personal leave to attend my swearing-in ceremony.
In the courthouse conference room, we new citizens picked up our naturalization certificates and souvenir flags. Wearing the coral shift dress Mamá had bought for me, I felt her presence. I knew she would be thinking, Bien hecho, mija. Well done, my daughter.
Later I walked back to work, having just relinquished my green card in exchange for U.S. citizenship. Soon I would attend college, then law school. A gust of wind whipped up, and the flag atop the building flapped as if in applause.
Most of the time I struggle to take pride in the U.S., but in the summer of 2002 I was surprised by my country’s generosity and hospitality. My best friend and I took a dream cycling adventure that we called “Portland to Portland”: we began on the shore of Portland, Maine, and rode through Canada and the States until we reached Cannon Beach, just west of Portland, Oregon.
For two months we didn’t know what each day would bring, but we were overwhelmed by how many people gave us what we needed: a nice dinner and a beer, a warm shower, a place to sleep, or a tip about where we might camp safely. It was the closest I’ve ever come to living by faith, and time and time again, strangers — both country folk and city folk, Republicans and Democrats, rich and poor — made accommodations for us. That was the time I was most proud of our country.
My partner, Domenick, and I had sailed from Belize to the port of Livingston in Guatemala. As soon as we tied up our boat at the municipal dock, we were visited by a squad of paramilitary police who identified themselves as La Guardia. We were forced to disembark from our thirty-foot sloop and held at gunpoint while half the squad rifled through the boat in search of contraband or weapons. Though nothing incriminating turned up, we were marched up the hill to the Office of Customs and Immigration.
An official behind a desk demanded to know which of us was the captain. Since my Spanish was a little better than Domenick’s, I answered, “Yo soy el capitán.”
I was then ordered to pay an exorbitant sum for “port fees,” a visa, and the “customs search” La Guardia had conducted. When I told the official that I would pay only if provided with a receipt, he laughed. “No recibo es necesario,” he said.
Pointing to a sign on the wall behind the desk that indicated otherwise, I refused to pay.
The discussion that followed became increasingly rancorous until the port captain arrived, took me aside, and told me I had to pay the fees or go to jail. Indignant, I called his bluff. At once the guards escorted me to a urine-soaked cell, where I was locked in and left alone to think about my decision.
What I thought about was home, a country where extortion was rare, not routine, and where I enjoyed protection from abuses of power like this one. I was young and, I now realize, naive. Others in the U.S. experience racial profiling, voting-rights violations, and other restrictions on their rights. Nevertheless, in that cell, I felt the privilege of having been born in a country that allowed me to move about freely and question authority without imprisonment.
In the summer of 1969 I arrived at Woodstock after an eighteen-hour journey by bus, car (riding on the hood), and foot. By the time Joan Baez started her set, I’d climbed to the top of a lighting tower, and I watched in wonder as one of my folk idols closed the first day of the festival. I was eighteen years old.
The next morning I looked out on the muddy landscape of hills and pastures littered with sagging tents and inhabited by people like me for as far as my young eyes could see. Until then I’d felt alone, one of a handful of rebels at a conservative suburban high school. When I encountered that sea of five hundred thousand people, all of whom had come to Woodstock for the same reasons, it opened my eyes to the possibility that we could change the world: end war and poverty, annihilate bigotry, spread literacy, and re-create the paradise from which we had fallen long ago.
We could do it. My generation.
Of course, things didn’t turn out that way.
In the forty-five years since the war in Vietnam ended — and with it the resistance movement it had spawned — the America I dreamt of has not come to be. Within one generation many of the progressive changes of the sixties and seventies were reversed.
I happened to be in Hong Kong in June 2019, just as the antigovernment protest movement there began. I got to see the largest and most peaceful of the demonstrations. Two million people marched through the streets to tell Beijing, “No.”
In these mostly young men and women I saw again what I had seen decades before, when young Americans had marched against the draft, against the Vietnam War, against racism, against tyranny. Not since my youth had I felt the power of so many people united against the Goliath of an authoritarian power.
When will it happen again here in my country? I wondered.
This spring, as the voices shouting, “No!” in the streets of Minneapolis grew to a chorus heard around the world, I had my answer.
David J. Bookbinder
The first line of Robbi Banks Jenkins’s “My Country” submission — “I’m an American, born in 1954 in Starkville, Mississippi” — caught my eye [October 2020]. I, too, was born in 1954 in Starkville, Mississippi. Her eloquent piece presented a snapshot of her life experiences, many of which have been profoundly different from mine for no reason other than the colors of our skin.
I hope the time when every American can consider this “our country” is not long in coming.
Until I read your Readers Write on “My Country” [October 2020], I hadn’t considered that “Where are you from?” could be a traumatic question, especially for those of Asian descent. I’m grateful to Amna Shaikh for taking the time to write about being born in Pakistan and seeking asylum in the U.S., and for educating readers like me in the process.