Thursday, February 11, 2010

Americans Have Become Lazy and Self-Righteous

Okay, well, maybe not all Americans. Maybe just me. I suspect there are many like me, but I should really just use myself and hope others will get the message.

I've been watching "Faces of America With Henry Louis Gates, Jr." on PBS. By tracing the ancestry of specific famous individuals, Gates illuminates some larger and very truths about American assimilation. He also makes me feel bad. Gates doesn't make me feel bad, but the stories do. Not bad, really, but certainly guilty. And lazy.

We all have stories in our family, some apocryphal some true, that make us realize that our ancestors we a unique bunch of humans. The adventures, the journeys, the dangers they faced are romanticized in mind and in movie. The fact of the matter, though, is that life was hard for them almost across the board. Unbearably hard by the standards of the 21st Century. The stories that Gates uncover are just a small sampling of the countless immigrant tales that we all have somewhere long ago.

When I hear about Kristi Yamaguchi's ancestors, their arduous journey to America, 12 hour days - 6 days a week of backbreaking labor in the sugar plantations of Hawaii for 12 bucks a month, interment in a concentration camp during WWII in the Arizona desert, the death of an entire young family due to disease, the resilience of the once successful patriarch of the family to go back to work in the fields of California when he was close to 70 years old...well, it makes me feel almost unworthy or their legacy. And I'm not even related!

Bigotry and racism aside, poverty and famine not-withstanding, most Americans have no idea what it truly means to "work hard." No, I mean WORK HARD. No unions to safeguard the work place, no regulations to protect the laborer, no laws to get in the way of productivity. Granted, time and progress should make conditions improve. Indeed, they have. Yet, through those filters, I sometimes think we have come to take their sacrifices for granted. Rather than learning from the lessons of history, we as a people tend to repeat them. Skin color and country of origin change, but the hardships for the people on the bottom persist.

From the Irish and Asians in my ancestors time, to the African-Americans and Mexican-Americans in my youth, to Arabs of today. If you don't share my skin color or my religion, you must be, somehow, less than me. How does that happen given the fact that we are all here because of somewhere else? How does it happen that in a country so proud of our diversity, so proud of our heritage, so proud of our accomplishments -- that we still segregate, isolate, stereotype and hate? We hate those who were just like our ancestors.

Nothing new here in this post, I know. Others have been far more eloquent about the subject. Hell, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. just made some shows about it. Maybe I need to write a letter to a Congressman or a Senator. Maybe a phone call to make sure my representatives watch PBS. Or maybe I should take the "Think Globally, Act Locally" idea to heart on a micro level. Maybe it will be enough if I try to be the person my ancestors would be proud of. Someone who will get back on the horse time and time again, broken and bloody, and not blame someone else for my getting bucked off. Someone who's not afraid to work hard, be tolerant of others, keep on open mind and an adventurous spirit.

May be harder that it sounds.