What it means to be an American

Fourth of July essays from six thoughtful Chicoans

I am an American citizen. I am also Palestinian, Moslem and an Arab. Do I feel a conflicting loyalty? No. God gave a brain to think, a heart to feel, and some common sense to stand for my beliefs. I do not follow the leaders of my religion and the leaders of my ethnic group blindly. —Ali Sarsour

I am an American citizen. I am also Palestinian, Moslem and an Arab. Do I feel a conflicting loyalty? No. God gave a brain to think, a heart to feel, and some common sense to stand for my beliefs. I do not follow the leaders of my religion and the leaders of my ethnic group blindly. —Ali Sarsour

Photo by Tom Angel

For the past 11 months, since Sept. 11, Americans have been thinking long and hard about what it means to be a citizen of this country. As we’ve wrestled with the consequences of coming under attack—the anger, the fear, the uncertainty about how best to respond—we’ve also meditated on what makes this country unique and valuable.

America was the first nation in history founded not on ethnic or religious lines, but on an idea, the idea of democracy. That idea is what has enabled us to embrace all the world’s cultures and religions, in the form of million of immigrants, and still remain whole, one nation, indivisible.

As a way of celebrating that democracy this Fourth of July, we asked six Chicoans with very diverse backgrounds to pen short essays for this issue. They were asked to write on the general subject of what being an American meant to them, but as you’ll read, they each had something uniquely their own to say. Our thanks to them for participating.

America inside and out
by Ali Sarsour

My maternal grandfather was one of the early illegal Palestinian immigrants to the USA. He was caught, imprisoned on Ellis Island and deported. My stepfather was among many legal Palestinian immigrants who were drafted and served in the U.S. Army in WWII. On my last trip to my birth town in Palestine, I spent time with a relative who is a Palestinian American and who served in the American army in Korea. Through the stories and experiences of many relatives, I have felt connected to the United States from the time of my birth in Palestine.

At our elementary and high schools, we had to study the history, geography, and culture of other countries and nations, including that of the USA. We studied the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, the climate of California, etc. I was surprised in 1967, when I came to the USA, to find out that I knew more about this country than many who were born here.

Growing up, I was aware of the USA. My family home was and still is located between two Palestinian refugee camps; many of my classmates were the children of refugee families. Their families came from Palestinian towns, villages and cities that were conquered by Israel in 1947. We believed that if it were not for the help the United States gave Israel, these families would have been still in their homes, towns and villages.

In the 1950s the USA was very involved in the Middle East. It created an alliance of reactionary Moslem governments in 1956 that included Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Pakistan. It pressured the World Bank to withdraw an offer to build the high dam in Egypt, and it sent the Marines to Lebanon. To say the least, my perception of the USA was not a rosy picture from the outside.

I remember participating in many demonstrations against U.S. policies in the Middle East. My first one was in 1957; I was in the fourth grade.

Now, 45 years later, I am a citizen of the United States. I have an “inside” picture to go with the outside one.

The people of America are no different than any country’s people. U Thant, the secretary general of the United Nations in the 1960s, once remarked that some people in Burma, his country, felt closer to some people in the USA than to others in their own country. I agree.

The USA is the land of diversity and opportunity. Many immigrants came to this country with a few dollars in their pockets and made it big; many others did not. Diversity, or rather accepting diversity, did not come easily. Blacks, Jews, Irish, Spanish, Italians, Arabs and many other waves of immigration paid their dues with blood and sweat to build this house of diversity, and we still have a ways to go.

Maybe on this Fourth of July we should salute those immigrants who worked so hard to build this house of dreams. Many of them did not speak English, but their children and grandchildren are winning the spelling bee contests. Many immigrants did not make it big, but their children and grandchildren are building the fabric of U.S. society. On the Fourth of July let us celebrate our diversity.

I am an American citizen. I am also Palestinian, Moslem and an Arab. Do I feel a conflicting loyalty? No. God gave a brain to think, a heart to feel, and some common sense to stand for my beliefs. I do not follow the leaders of my religion and the leaders of my ethnic group blindly.

The challenge of a day like the Fourth of July is not just to raise the flag, but also to remember the poor, the weak, the disabled and the oppressed.

The Statue of Liberty was meant to be a symbol of what the United States was all about, a nation of freedom and compassion. These words are inscribed on its pedestal: “GIVE ME YOUR TIRED, YOUR POOR, YOUR HUDDLED MASSES YEARNING TO BE FREE. …” I hope they will not be forgotten.

Ali Sarsour grew up in Palestine. He came to the United States in 1967 and to Chico in 1970. He studied political science at Chico State University, where he was active in student government. He now manages a Radio Shack store in Chico.

Every Fourth of July, we the people drag out our flags and red, white and blue garb and are energized like the pink bunny beating a drum for patriotism and the rights that are available to each of us, but once a year is not enough. —Mary Andrews

Photo by Tom Angel

The sovereignty of the people
by Mary Andrews

When was the last time you read the Constitution? The accounting of the Constitutional Convention? The Federalist Papers? Alexis de Tocqueville’s comments and critique of Democracy in America? Never?

Nowhere on this earth is there a government slower to react to change than in America. Thank God that our forefathers had the sense to realize that pure democracy does not work. They put in checks and balances by establishing three branches of government that are cumbersome and awkward at times, but it works.

Every Fourth of July, we the people drag out our flags and red, white and blue garb and are energized like the pink bunny beating a drum for patriotism and the rights that are available to each of us, but once a year is not enough.

Taking rights seriously is incumbent on each of us. Each of us is morally accountable in regard to taking our rights seriously. Our forefathers fought for those rights. We must recognize them, cherish and protect them.

As de Tocqueville observed in the early 1800s, a relatively short time after that first Fourth of July, we must begin with the doctrine of sovereignty of the people. In America, “the principle of the sovereignty of the people is neither barren nor concealed, as it is with some other nations; it is recognized by the customs and proclaimed by the laws; it spreads freely, and arrives without impediment at its most remote consequences. If there is a country in the world where the doctrine of the sovereignty of the people can be fairly appreciated, where it can be studied in its application to the affairs of society, and where its dangers and its advantages may be judged, that country is assuredly America.”

To de Tocqueville, the American attachment to our country comes from knowledge, is nurtured by the laws, grows by the exercise of civil rights, and in the end is “confounded by the personal interests of the citizens.”

My personal interest seems to be a trait that came with me at birth. My feelings about America started at a very young age. I remember weaving red, white and blue crepe paper streamers through the spokes of my bicycle for the annual “kiddies'” parade in Oroville. For many of my grammar school and high-school years, my wardrobe consisted of red, white and blue clothing and accessories.

I was obsessed with patriotism and love of America. My love of America was enforced by three of my four brothers serving in the Navy during World War II and the Korean Conflict. Although we feared they would pay the ultimate price and not return, the entire family was proud that we did our part to defend the country we loved. We proudly displayed a banner with stars designating the number from our home serving in the military.

It was difficult to understand and accept the attitude toward our nation in the 1960s and 1970s, but we the people accept differences in opinions. The flame showing our love of America flickered in the winds of unrest. At times, the unrest in America spiraled out of control of its citizens. Then, Americans were lulled into complacency and ignored several incidents that I refer to as “wake-up calls.”

The wakeup calls came in the form of attacks on America. The attacks on the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, the World Trade Center in 1993, the U.S.S. Cole and the American embassy buildings in Africa were signs we chose to ignore. After the horrible attack on the World Trade Center on 9-11, Americans collectively awoke and said, “We have had enough.”

Flags and tri-color paraphernalia that had been buried for years were dug up and displayed with pride. Many citizens fly the colors at their home and/or business. The current display of flags in Chico is marvelous, and I personally thank each and every person who participated in making this display a reality.

Because of my deep feelings for the flag and my love of America, it is very fitting that I stand before this flag display at “dawn’s early light” for the picture that accompanies this article. The flags remind us not to fall asleep again. Our love for America is good, and it is healthier because of our love. Stay awake, Americans. Stay vigilant. God bless America!

Mary Andrews is a former mayor of Chico and a retired small-business owner. She’s currently working for a master’s degree in political science at Chico State University.

Although my life’s experience makes me harbor a healthy modicum of distrust in what our government says its purposes are, I generally tend to believe that the government is doing the right thing. —Byron M. Jackson

Photo by Tom Angel

My American nature
by Byron M. Jackson

I embrace all of the values of being an American. I salute our flag. I firmly believe in our government and its underlying principles. Although my life’s experience makes me harbor a healthy modicum of distrust in what our government says its purposes are, I generally tend to believe that the government is doing the right thing. I find the U.S. Constitution to be a document that embodies all that we should seek as protections and liberties for our society. I am also an American who differs from the majority of Chicoans. I’d like to explore some of my differences and similarities as an expression of my “Americaness.”

Growing up in Harrisburg, Penn., in the 1950s and 1960s was a blessing for me. I came to expect that living in the capital, the seat of state government, would show how responsive government could be to human needs. I love studying history and seemed to have developed an early sense of time and place in Harrisburg.

I loved the fact that the city was old, with old neighborhoods, a lovely traditional downtown section and other shopping sections in the neighborhoods. We had beautiful government buildings that reflected the majesty of government. I would frequently spend Sunday afternoons with my sister visiting the state museum or a symphony at the State Forum building.

By the time I was 13 years old, I realized that the city was deteriorating and that the state and city governments neglected neighborhood residents who were being displaced for the purpose of constructing high-rise office buildings. This was my first inkling that government did not always work in favor of its citizens.

My family occasionally discussed issues such as urban renewal, labor relations and civil rights at the dinner table. My parents were African-American Democrats, and they passed on their commitment to the Democratic Party to me. They also passed on to me and my sister the absolute concern for the downtrodden and the poor. My mother was wonderful for always being a positive influence in my life. My father was firm, but he was fun loving, and he, like my mother, understood who I was and what I would need to do to grow into the person I wanted to be.

A part of my American nature is what some of my friends find so contradictory about me. I love military history, but I hate war. My mother used to say in the 1950s, as I pored through GI Joe comics or books about World War II, that she hoped and prayed that I would never have to fight in a war. When I graduated from high school in 1965, I received nominations to attend the U.S. Naval Academy and the Air Force Academy, neither of which I would attend. My war came, and I avoided it as a result of an old baseball injury that made me exempt from induction.

I was in college in Pennsylvania and graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley, while much of the Vietnam War was fought. I hated that war. I have never fought in a war, but I am fascinated by the stories of battle, and I am in awe of the warriors and the survivors.

As Americans, we tend to rush to identify heroes. I am more reserved than that, but I do acknowledge people and types whom I admire. I admire naturalists and others who understand and protect our environment. I admire poets and writers, particularly Langston Hughes. I admire such pioneers as Jackie Robinson, Hank Greenberg, Harvey Milk and others who went against the tide of opinion or custom and helped us all grow toward better understanding of who we are.

I admire my parents, who prepared us for a society in which my sister and I could live and prosper. I admire people who do things for others. I attended a bar mitzvah several years ago, and the father advised his son in conclusion of the ceremony “to do good deeds.” Bob Sherrard, a former faculty member at CSU, Chico, was a person who did for others. I always admired Bob. He was truly a good American.

The Fourth of July is always special to me. As a political scientist, I still marvel at the notion of how our government was formed. I love to convey the story of the formation of the revolutionary era government in my introductory American Government classes. The stories of Americans are the illustrations of how we all make up America, as different and similar as we are.

During Fourth of July gatherings and picnics this year, many American families will celebrate Independence Day, each in its own way. Writers have used terms such as “tapestry” and “melting pot” to describe the collection of people making up American society. I am satisfied if we merely acknowledge and appreciate who we are in all of our shades, our persuasions and our lifestyles. We are a rich nation, and we become richer when we treat all Americans with respect and with concern for the commonweal.

Byron Jackson is vice provost for academic affairs and dean of undergraduate education at Chico State University. He’s lived in Chico since 1974.

Politicians will give speeches on its meaning, and scholars will enlighten us with historical insights and reflections. But liberty, justice and freedom are more than words. —Jim Ledgerwood

Photo by Tom Angel

Joe’s story
by Jim Ledgerwood

I still remember the day I met Joe Copack. Joe arrived at the Bachelors Officers Quarters at Mather Air Force Base in Sacramento with all of his worldly possessions packed in his yellow 1967 Chevrolet. As young, newly minted U.S. Air Force second lieutenants, we were assigned to Mather for navigator training.

Joe was quick to introduce himself and did not take long to move his gear into his quarters. It was a Saturday night, so we decided it would be a great idea to go downtown, have a beer and check out the local social scene. We hit it off right away and became best buddies.

Joe was from Chicago and held a degree in economics from Perdue University. He had a confident, outgoing personality, was easygoing and had a constant smile. But most of all he had an outstanding sense of humor. Joe would joke about anything, as illustrated by his introduction to the culinary delights of an artichoke.

Seeing an artichoke featured on a restaurant menu, he ordered one. Being from the Midwest, Joe had no clue how to eat an artichoke. I informed him the way you eat an artichoke was to pull off the leaves and dip them in mayonnaise and pull them through your teeth. I could not convince him it wasn’t a gag, and we couldn’t stop laughing.

While fun loving and irreverent, Joe was grounded in solid Midwestern values. Joe was the only (and late-in-life) son of parents who adored him. He was a traditional kind of guy and held values of love of country and dedication to duty, when love of county and dedication to duty were not in vogue. Joe attended Mass off base, preferring services conducted in the more traditional Latin.

Joe was a hard worker and dedicated student. He would make time to help his fellow classmates, freely giving of his expert grasp of radar, over-water and celestial navigation. Joe consistently got excellent ratings on flight training missions.

He was an outstanding athlete and could best most of his class in the rugged physical training run. Joe would forgo the honor of coming in first, however, to hang back and give encouragement to those more challenged by this activity.

Upon graduation Joe was assigned to a bomber squadron and was involved in combat operations over the Bac Maj military complex in North Vietnam. His aircraft received a lethal strike from a surface-to-air missile on Dec. 22, 1972. The aircraft was destroyed and Joe was killed. It is unimaginable what kind of Christmas Joe’s parents had.

Compounding their pain and denying them closure, Joe’s death was classified “missing in action” because the North Vietnamese government denied the fact that it held his remains. His fate was resolved only with the return of his body an agonizing 17 years later.

Joe is one of the many men and women who have given their lives in service to this nation. For every Joe there are parents and loved ones who suffer unbearable grief, pain and sorrow. There is a saying that a single death is a tragedy and a thousand deaths is a statistic. Joe’s story brings home the fact that there are a thousand tragedies in every death.

Many words will be written and spoken about the meaning of the Fourth of July, from many sources. Politicians will give speeches on its meaning, and scholars will enlighten us with historical insights and reflections. But liberty, justice and freedom are more than words. They are realities that must be defended by our young men and women, sometimes at enormous cost.

At the end of the day, the liberty, justice and freedoms we celebrate on the Fourth of July obtain their real meaning, value and significance from the terrible price paid by men and women like Joe and his family. We have much to be thankful for.

But when I think about Joe on the holiday, I think about artichokes, and what a great sense of humor he had and how proud I was to call him my friend.

Jim Ledgerwood is a Chico businessman and Republican Party activist. He also writes a weekly column for the Paradise Post. He’s pictured holding a flag that hangs in his office as a memorial to his friend Joe Copack.

No matter what Americans eat for breakfast—cereal, huevos rancheros, bagels or grits—at work we want a well-paying job and appreciation for doing it well. —Charles L. Geshekter

Photo by Tom Angel

‘A nation of distant cousins’
by Charles L. Geshekter

Americans share common values and similar aspirations.

We want to live in a safe neighborhood and have our children attend good schools. We expect to be treated as individuals, not advanced or hindered because of some “group” membership.

No matter what Americans eat for breakfast—cereal, huevos rancheros, bagels or grits—at work we want a well-paying job and appreciation for doing it well.

Our culture represents an open-ended interaction between immigrants and citizens. We hardly notice the immigrant roots of the words our children now speak as standard English, from schlep to salsa, macaroni to macarena.

The USA admits more immigrants each year than the rest of the world combined. As a nation of immigrants, America thrives by following two simple rules: 1) Current citizens must agree that immigrants can and should become Americans; and 2) immigrants must agree to do so.

We expect newcomers to assimilate, to accept our founding ideas of liberty and equality, to be law-abiding and to lead productive lives. In turn, we should accept that they will subtly change and improve American culture.

Immigrants to the United States are really citizens in training. Something like 97 percent of adult Americans, whatever their color, speak English “like a native,” a crucial factor in building a common nationality that enables us to understand one another.

Living in America means people have the right to life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and the ballot. And that no one is entitled to a job, a contract, or a place in a university on account of his race or her gender.

American culture is intrinsically composite. “All Americans are part Yankee, part backwoodsman, part Negro,” noted writer Albert Murray 30 years ago. “I was already an American before I was ever conscious that I was black,” he recalled. “I was already breathing when I looked around and saw all these different people that belonged around me.”

In his book The Omni-Americans (1970), Murray called the United States “a nation of multicolored people.” He knew there were white and black Americans but joked that “any fool can see that the white people are not really white, and the black people are not really black. They are all interrelated one way or another.”

Murray is not surprised that today’s top American rap singer is white (Eminem) and its best golfer is black.

The contradictions of America were a favorite topic of Murray’s. Reflecting on the fact that Thomas Jefferson was a slaveholder who also helped to establish a country whose founding creed was liberty, Murray mused: “Every time I think about it, I want to wake him up and give him ten more slaves.”

In a sense, there is no white America or black America because, says writer Ishmael Reed, “we are a nation of distant cousins.”

Alex Haley’s book Roots (1975) was a combination of fact and fiction about a resilient African and his family forced to live in America as slaves. Haley traced his family’s history on his mother’s side to a West African village. But had Haley traced his father’s bloodline, he would have traveled back to Ireland.

The country is profoundly affected by its heritage of Western civilization. We rely on its scientific method in medicine and technology, practice robust forms of self-criticism, and advocate human rights.

While not perfect, Western civilization managed to abolish many forms of human cruelty, gave us forms of democratic government that actually work and produced extraordinary accomplishments in literature and philosophy.

Even when discussing multiculturalism, we use the tools of the social sciences produced by Western civilization. Cultural understanding is the result of disciplined investigation, not skin color, ethnic heritage or sexual orientation. Our scientists reject the idea that races have “perspectives” and repudiate the irrational notion that “we think with our blood.”

Americans strive to tolerate all manner of religious and cultural diversity in one’s private space. But we expect everyone to practice the same civic-minded norms in the public sphere.

Although our struggle to become one nation is far from over, after the horrors of Sept. 11, I believe Americans embrace these principles more closely than ever.

Charles Geshekter has taught African history at Chico State since 1968. His writings and research have concentrated on Somalia and Ethiopia, and he has visited Africa 20 times. He was a founding member of Chico Velo Cycling Club in the early ‘70s, when it was known as “Mellow Velo.”

Sometimes it takes a stark contrast to inspire reflection. That night I realized to be an American means having the right to be common and ordinary, and the freedom to imagine and achieve the extraordinary.—Dan Nguyen-Tan

Photo by Tom Angel

Christmas in Burma
by Dan Nguyen-Tan

Several years ago I spent Christmas in the unlikeliest of places. I was in Kyauk Myaung, a small town situated along the Ayeyarwady River in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma.

In Myanmar ­ a Southeast Asian country ruled by a military regime widely known for its pro-democracy repression ­ I met U Bau-Gyi, a Burmese restaurant operator I befriended while waiting for a ferry in Kyauk Myaung.

U Bau-Gyi kept me company while I waited for a boat that arrived nine hours late, offering me papaya, rice, and conversation that remain, to this day, a searing personal reminder of the universal human desire for liberty and justice.

With his decent English, a vestige of British colonialism, U Bau-Gyi initially spent the day teaching me about Burmese food, etiquette, and history, but as time wore on, he grew comfortable enough to freely speak about politics ­ the closing of every non-military university in the country, the corruption of local government officials, the systematic repression of the pro-democracy movement, and his hopes for the future of Myanmar.

It was common practice in Myanmar for the police to arrest people who challenged government policies, for the government to take private property, for the press to be state-run, for state-run businesses to use forced labor, and for officials to accept bribes and ignore the rule of law. In contrast to the beauty of the Burmese people and landscape, government repression and economic isolationism limited human possibilities.

U Bau-Gyi was a supporter of the National League of Democracy, which won 82% of the parliamentary seats in the last Burmese election in 1990. The election results were ignored by a military regime better known for its imprisonment of pro-democracy leaders such as Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, who was finally released from house arrest in May of this year.

I will never forget U Bau-Gyi’s anticipation as he unlocked a kitchen cupboard to show me a 1991 booklet entitled “Democracy,” which was published by the U.S. Information Services. The booklet contained a message of freedom, in both Burmese and English, that his government considered dangerous imperialistic propaganda.

U Bau-Gyi kept this “Democracy” booklet for many years, which to him was an emblem of freedom, despite his knowledge that possession of this booklet was a crime in his country. The simple act of possessing this “Democracy” booklet embodied the fearless courage required to dissent in the face of suppression.

The “Democracy” booklet contained ideas familiar to American citizens who experience these principles in practice everyday, but to U Bau-Gyi the booklet represented his hope for liberty. When asked to reflect upon what it means to be an American, the face of U Bau-Gyi comes to mind.

He, with millions of others around the world, hunger for the rights enjoyed by Americans: government based upon consent of the governed, free and fair elections, majority rule and minority rights, equality and due process before the law, civilian control of military and police, pluralism, freedoms of speech, religion, assembly, and the press.

Those principles found in documents such as The Bill of Rights, Declaration of Independence, The Constitution, Emancipation Proclamation, the Federalist Papers, and the Gettysburg Address, to name just a few, are testaments to the enduring yet difficult practice of democracy.

I never boarded the ferry, deciding it was not safe to venture too far north in Myanmar. Instead, I spent Christmas night in Kyauk Myaung. Following his State-mandated procedure, U Bau-Gyi led me to local police who required me to sign a litany of forms to “check me in.”

The police directed me to a nearby home where I slept on a thin bamboo mat. Exhausted, I stretched out listening to the BBC and Voice of America on short-wave radio, while thinking about family, friends, and the irony of rediscovering the lessons of democracy in such an undemocratic country.

Sometimes it takes a stark contrast to inspire reflection. That night I realized to be an American means having the right to be common and ordinary, and the freedom to imagine and achieve the extraordinary.

Dan Nguyen-Tan was elected to the Chico City Council in 2000. He was born in Saigon in 1974, six months before that city fell to the North Vietnamese, ending a long and bloody civil war. Nguyen-Tan’s family escaped six days before the fall. In 1981 his family moved to Chico. He is a graduate of Harvard University and says he is delighted that his service on the City Council has expanded the community’s cultural literacy with more people now able to pronounce a difficult Vietnamese surname.