I’ve just returned from another trip to Africa. I was with 10 other people from around the US working with deaf communities and schools in Zimbabwe and Kenya. This was my fifth time to Kenya, fifth time to Zimbabwe, and second trip where we visited both nations in one trip. Like previous encounters, the experiences I had were exhausting, exhilarating, frustrating, and inspiring all at once.
We were there over the Fourth of July again this time. Some of the team missed the usual displays of patriotism that come with being an American on the Fourth of July and joined in with those from another mission team on the small farm training center where we were staying to sing some songs and mark the holiday. While I don’t begrudge their enjoyment, I didn’t really feel an urge to join in. This lack of urge isn’t a sense of shame about being an American, but more a discomfort with the usual commercialized jingoistic type of patriotism that usually accompanies the Fourth of July.
My discomfort takes some explaining.
As a young boy, I loved going to the fireworks. Fort Wayne, Indiana had a fantastic show every year and people drove from all around to park in the Memorial Coliseum parking lot to watch them. My family would make a day of it and pack a lunch and dinner in the cooler then head out to find a good parking spot. Usually, we’d clear out the van dad used for work and have the room for my sister and I to invite a couple of friends to join us for the day. After finding a parking spot, we’d haul the cooler out into Johnny Appleseed Park and find a shady spot to eat. From there, it was an extravaganza of exploring the area, activities, and running into people we knew from school or church all day. By sunset, we’d be in our lawn chairs by the van and enjoy bright flashes and thudding booms of the fireworks as we said, “Ooh…Ahh!” along with everyone else. Then we’d head home for some blissful sleep after tending to the inevitable sunburn and mosquito bites.
So, for me, it was less a ritual of patriotism and more a really fun day with family and friends that ended with some visual and sonic delights. It was less about exalting America’s virtues and more about enjoying some Midwestern Americana. I was, and am, fully aware of the sacrifices made and the struggles endured to establish and maintain the freedom to enjoy that Midwestern Americana, and grateful for them. But the experience of those freedoms was the focus, not their defense with jingoistic patriotic rhetoric.
When I was 13, the US decided to invade a tiny island named Grenada in the Caribbean. I was just becoming more fully aware of the dynamics of international conflicts and US intervention at the time. This invasion was justified by President Reagan as a defense of American values of democracy against Communist Cuba’s building of an airstrip and a cache of weapons being stockpiled on the island. While the decision to invade Grenada was not related to a previous bombing incident in Beirut that destroyed a US Marine barracks killing most everyone inside, the patriotic flag waving fervor that accompanied the announcement of our invasion of Grenada was intended to erase the sense of military and national ‘weakness’ that was part of the national rhetoric after the Beirut bombing.
Being a geography kid, I looked up the location of the island on my maps and globe. All I could think was that we were sending a huge military force to squash a tiny island. It hardly seemed fair.
Then in 1986, Reagan ordered a bombing of Libya in retaliation for their suspected support of terrorists who bombed a disco club in Berlin earlier that year. While the international diplomatic community largely spoke against Reagan’s swift decision to resort to dropping bombs, the general American response where I lived was, “Go USA! Bomb those [racist invective]! USA! USA!” Often yelled with the same patriotic fervor used to cheer on the 1984 US Olympians in Los Angeles.
I realized with a sense of dread that we were cheering the dropping of explosives and killing of people the same way we’d cheer on a sporting event. I just couldn’t stomach it. It was then I fully understood that the “bombs bursting in air” in our National Anthem were not fireworks, but actual instruments of war and death. And I realized that our National Anthem ends with a question mark not a period. It’s less a patriotic display of triumphant nationalism and a fervent prayer of desperate hope.
It was in college that I discovered the Paul Simon song American Tune which seemed to somehow convey my conflicted feelings about enjoying and appreciating what America means and provides while grapping with the incongruities of celebrating a country that continued to thrive on racism, sexism, nationalistic violence, and all the other things that were pressing on my mind in the early 90s as we watched in horror as South Central LA burned after the verdict acquitting police officers who had savagely beaten Rodney King. As a sociology major, I had learned and discussed enough in classes to understand the reasons South Central was such a powder keg to begin with and how increased police repression in the midst of desperation would ignite such a situation.
These issues have not resolved themselves in our nation and so this conflicted appreciation and revulsion of cheering on America continues for me and weighs heavily on my mind each Fourth of July.
So Simon’s lyrics ring true to me when I’m overseas on the Fourth of July.
Many’s the time I’ve been mistaken
And many times confused
Yes, and I’ve often felt forsaken
And certainly misused
But I’m all right, I’m all right
I’m just weary to my bones
Still, you don’t expect to be
Bright and bon vivant
So far away from home, so far away from home.
Being in Zimbabwe and Kenya as a white deaf man was somewhat more difficult for me than I expected the first time I went over and although I’m more aware and ready for it now, it remains a struggle. Despite the ways that I encounter marginalization, misunderstanding, and discrimination in the US, the strength of white and male privilege in our society often mitigates the worst of the effects on my sense of self and well being. Coupled with my general ability to hear reasonably well in some situations if I’m using my hearing aids and my ability to speak clearly, there’s a lot of privilege conferred upon me in relation to my hearing loss most of the time as well when compared to the experiences of most deaf people. Add to that my high level of education and command of English that fuel my ability to be articulate in explaining and defending my alterity as a deaf person to others and my life in America, while not entirely without struggle, goes pretty smoothly most of the time.
In Zimbabwe and Kenya, much of that security is stripped away by being in a society that is much less aware of the abilities of deaf people to achieve high levels of education and leadership skills. While speaking English is still a prized privilege in these countries, the prevalence and preference for mother tongues means there’s more Shona, Kimeru, and Swahili being spoken and when English is spoken, it’s often done with unfamiliar accents that make it harder for me to decipher. My relatively high and rather uncommonly good ability to lipread English is mostly useless. While losing the privileges that lead to a somewhat charmed life as a deaf person in the US is not necessarily a bad thing, it’s a bewildering and frustrating experience. It certainly has made me aware of the dynamics of privilege, power, and oppression in new ways.
So, coupled with my reflections on being American, I often look at my country in somewhat different ways than many of the white hearing folks I grew up with and people much like them. Paul Simon comes to the fore again with,
And I don’t know a soul who’s not been battered
I don’t have a friend who feels at ease
I don’t know a dream that’s not been shattered
or driven to its knees
But it’s all right, it’s all right
For we’ve lived so well so long
Still, when I think of the road we’re traveling on
I wonder what’s gone wrong
I can’t help it, I wonder what’s gone wrong.
But it’s the last stanza that drives it home for me;
We come on the ship they call the Mayflower
We come on the ship that sailed the moon
We come in the age’s most uncertain hour
and sing an American tune
But it’s all right, it’s all right
You can’t be forever blessed
Still, tomorrow’s going to be another working day
And I’m trying to get some rest
That’s all, I’m trying to get some rest.
I’d heard about the killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile while checking the news in Nairobi after being ‘off the grid’ in areas where wifi wasn’t readily available to me and I’d been too busy working with the deaf adults and children who were under all sorts of pressures of their own that make their lives less difficult if not desperate.
And I just wanted to get some rest in the morning as we trundled into the Nairobi Airport to begin our journey home. I was tired and looking forward to coming home on a plane they called KQ100 and connecting to UA123. But dominating every television was the news of the shooting of police officers in Dallas that was live and breaking at the time. Lorne Ahrens, Patrick Zamarripa, Michael Krol, Michael Smith, and Brent Thompson died that day and several others injured. Also in the days just before I left for this trip, I’d attended three separate vigils for the forty-nine people killed at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando.
Pressure pushing down on me
Pressing down on you
No man ask for
That brings a building down
Splits a family in two
Puts people on streets.
The classic Queen anthem Under Pressure often comes to mind when I’m dealing with the pressures of systemic violence, oppression, and marginalization that make racism, sexism, homophobia, and audism so destructive to human lives. Sometimes it’s my own experience with the pressures of being marginalized. More often it’s dealing with the struggle to work against the conferral of privilege on my own life that comes at the cost of harming others. And always, it’s the heartbreak of seeing good people and good friends suffering the effects of such systemic violence to the point that we’re taking to the streets to protest and make the pain visible in a cry to call our country to change.
It’s the terror of knowing
What the world is about
Watching some good friends
‘Let me out’
Pray tomorrow gets me higher
Pressure on people
people on streets.
It seems all too much to deal with given how tired I feel, but what can I do but join in?
Chipping around – kick my brains around the floor
These are the days it never rains but it pours.
Turned away from it all like a blind man
Sat on a fence but it don’t work
Keep coming up with love
But it’s so slashed and torn
Why – why – why?
And as I reconnect with my friends, I find laughter and hope in the midst of anguish and despair. And once again, Freddie Mercury’s closing lyrics to Under Pressure ring out a truth that we often forget.
Can’t we give ourselves one more chance
Why can’t we give love that one more chance
Why can’t we give love give love give love give love
Give love give love give love give love give love
Because love’s such an old fashioned word
And love dares you to care for
The people on the edge of the night
And love dares you to change our way of
Caring about ourselves
This is our last dance
This is our last dance
This is ourselves
We can forget to love. To love our God who made us all with all our heart, all our being, and all our mind. And to love our neighbor as ourselves. (Matthew 26:36-40). For these are the greatest commandments. As Freddie Mercury reminds us, love transforms us. It is a challenge to our self-centeredness that causes is to overlook the suffering of others. It dares us to care for people on the edges of our society whether we are comfortable with them or not. It changes the way we are about ourselves and our world. This is our last dance. Each eruption of this systemic violence is a new ‘last chance’ to get it right. This urgency to love inverts the pressure from pushing down on me and pressing down on you. Instead we join together in love and push back at the systems.
This often means being under pressure from systemic violence while being pushed by pressure to change such systems – an uncomfortable place to be! But again, the pressure pushing against such systems is love. It’s allowing that love to transform myself and my experience that makes this pressure bearable. Rather than being something that destroys my soul, it becomes something that uplifts it as I connect with others. It doesn’t end the systemic violence, that’s work yet to be done, but it mitigates the soul crushing effects systemic violence creates that leads to desperation and desperate acts.
And for that, I thank the God who gave me life and all my friends and family who have nurtured that life and taught me to love as I write these heavy thoughts in the wee hours of the night in the USA as my body still thinks it’s in Africa where the mid-morning sun is shining on those I have recently reconnected with in love.