Living in Niger, my biggest dream was to one day reach France. The images I had of France came from television programs and movies. French people were always dressed in heavy jackets, sitting around coffee tables at the streetcorner cafés, driving small cars, or riding in taxi-cabs. Soccer stadiums were mostly crowded.
My images of America, also based on television programs and movies, were a little bit more complex. An image I remember is of some Black people walking down the streets with big radio cassette players on their shoulders. Other images were represented by Will Smith and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, but rarely did I see anything to do with drug activities. I also remember the Eddie Murphy movie, “Coming to America,” which showed cultural conflicts between an African prince and young Black men in Brooklyn.
My images of White people were represented by the TV series ‘Dallas.’ Some of the people were rich oil owners either living in gated communities or isolated homes, who never took off their shoes before jumping on their beds. In general, cities were filled with shiny skyscrapers.
As far as I know, America was, is, and will always be the destination where people from all over the world dream to be. What other country in the world do people swim to? Why do people spend days in empty tires, months in different types of boats, and sneak into weird compartments in order to reach this country?
Because it is an exceptional place. This is the only land for big dreams.
When I arrived in the United States in 1997, I landed in a small town in Iowa where the tallest building was only ten floors high. The day after my arrival, my roommate and I went for a walk, and I was surprised to not see people walking on the street like back home. Moreover, I couldn’t see the tall buildings I remembered from ‘Dallas.’ My friend informed me that the only place to see those buildings is a big city.
Surprised? Not yet! The biggest surprise will come later regarding the English language. I heard that without English I couldn’t do anything, so I decided to take English courses at a community center. There I met immigrants who couldn’t speak a word of English, yet they had spent at least a decade in this country. Some of them were still learning basic words like: spoon, fork, cabbage, and cucumber. I remember wondering why they hadn’t bothered to learn the English language.
Over time I discovered the reason: they had the means to communicate and work without learning the language, even though this went directly against the idea of America as a melting pot. I remember thinking, Why should I pay thousands of dollars to learn English? Why not just get by with using my French?
My eyes started to open on September 11, 2001. I was in a classroom at Colorado State University when a classmate told us about the attack. I didn’t comprehend what she said so I decided to go home and watch it by myself. I couldn’t believe it had happened in the United States of America. Later that day, I visited with a friend from the Middle East. He said many things that surprised me. Although he admired Americans and their freedom, he blamed America for the hijacking. Over the course of our conversations, I discovered that his opinions came from news programs both at home and abroad.
An unimaginable disdain for America and its leaders went worldwide in 2004 with Michael Moore’s film Fahrenheit 9/11. The film focused on covert connections between the leaders, recent terrorism activities, and wars. In a 2007 article, Sean Penn, A fan of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, claimed that some American leaders “are villainously and criminally obscene people, obscene human beings, incompetent even to fulfill your own self-serving agenda, while tragically neglectful and destructive of ours and our country’s.”
A year later, I was stunned again.
As Ayanan Hirshi Ali described Islamists killing to Tavis Smiley, he responded,“But Christians do that every single day in this country.” Are we living in two different Americas?
A few weeks ago, two stunning events happened. First, Vice President Joe Biden demeaned America, stating that, “If I blindfolded Americans and took them into some of the airports or ports in China, and then took one of them to any of your cities in the middle of the night just so that they could see it, if I said, ‘Which one is in America and Which one is in China,’ most Americans would say, ‘That great one is in America.’” Second, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter accused America of abusing human rights . Why doesn’t Carter even mention the Christians slaughtered weekly in Nigeria, Sudan and Egypt? How about the Iranian pastor sentenced to death for apostasy? Again, which America do Vice President Biden and former President Carter live in?
Are Moore, Penn, Smiley, Biden, and Carter talking about the America I knew and know, or do we exist in two different Americas? Moreover, instead of building up America, why do some public figures want to tear it down from its greatness? Is America a perfect country? Nope. But find one perfect country if you can. There is none.
Many people around the world continue to love and have the highest regard for America, despite the mischaracterizations and bashing coming from within its own borders. A Member of the European Parliament, Daniel Hannan, an outstanding speaker of American values, recently stated, “As a Briton, I see the American republic as a repository of our traditional freedoms.” He added that “The success of this country, the energy, the optimism, and the self-belief, all go back to the miracle in Philadelphia, nearly two and half centuries ago.”
It is comforting to hear a European speak out about American values.
Do you recognize the America described by Mr. Hannan compared to the America demeaned by Jimmy Carter? Instead of bashing our homeland, what is our responsibility to make it better than we find it? What is our contribution to protect the legacies so many have died for? How will we help future generations learn that those who sacrificed their lives in Vietnam, South Korea, Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Germany, and on this soil on September 11th , were real people—heroes—who died for a better America?
In French, we say “Le linge sale se lave en famille,” meaning “Dirty laundry is only washed in the family.” It cannot be cleaned by screaming out loud, only by hard work, and individual contribution.
So take your optimism and patriotism, and let’s all get to work. We can and will do it.
About Justus Lotade-Manje:
Justus Lotade-Manje was born in Moundou, Chad, the second of nine children. He has a PhD in Agricultural Economics from Texas A&M University and we welcome him as a new contributor to The George Jarkesy Show Webpage.