by T. K. Armistead
For those that are not familiar with the story of the prodigal son it seemed to have gone this way. A man had two sons, the younger son demanded his share of his inheritance while his father is still living, and went off to a distant country where he “wasted his substance with riotous living”, and eventually had to take work as a swine herder –most likely a low point, because swine are not kosher in Judaism–. There he came to his senses, and decided to return home and threw himself on his father’s mercy, thinking that even if his father decided to disown him, that being one of his servants was still far better than tending pigs. But when he returned home, his father greeted him with open arms, and hardly gave him a chance to express his repentance; he killed a fatted calf to celebrate his return. The older brother becomes jealous at the favored treatment of his faithless brother and upset at the lack of reward for his own faithfulness. But the father responded:
Son, thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine. It was meet that we should make merry, and be glad: for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found. — (Luke 15:32, KJV)
As an expatriate black American living deep in the heart of Western Europe I, like many others had turned my back and dulled my heart to America. After the election of George W. Bush and the subsequent re-election I believed that we, as a country lost its way. I couldn’t identify with any of the new values of the last eight years and felt I was no longer useful to the cause of the country. I stunted my patriotism and began to make a life in Europe with only passing interest and little attention paid to the country I once lived in. I became an American in name only, a blue passport holder, a cynic, a critic to all American interests both foreign and domestic. I became disenchanted with America and its many phrases in hyperbole. “We are the greatest nation on earth” people would exclaim but to outsiders the “greatest” nation on earth brought terror and fear. America seemed hell bent on separating the world into to halves and I felt I had the straddle the two halves surreptitiously.
After 9/11 there was a sense of love for the gentle giant that was wounded unjustly, everyone I met on the streets of Italy rallied around my family. They wanted to hold us and take care of us. We were flooded with stories of how someone’s uncle was rescued from starvation by some American solider or how a friend of a friend got a little money from his American friend and that helped start a business. This was the America they knew and now simply because of my nationality, I was now like family. My landlord, at the time, lived in America for a while and said this me, with tears in his eyes and the thickest Neapolitan accent you could imagine: “America always helps everyone out and now it is time for her to be helped, if you need anything at any time just ask to me”. I never took him up on the offer, because I had no family lost and zero damage to any property I left back in the States. But the sentiment was taken and we moved on.
Some of the patriotism came back after 9/11, I began to watch the news and saw how the people of the Nation rallied around one other. It was beautiful, it was hopeful, I was wrong. By the end of 2001 we not only made some bad decisions but, in my opinion, were set on the wrong track completely. All of the sympathy we earned with 9/11 began to erode into vitriolic attacks on America and conversations, prefaced with: “I know it’s not you but…” I became an unwilling surrogate for all the anger and confusion aimed at the U.S. I retreated further into my apathy being momentarily released from it by 9/11. “Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice shame on me.”
Life continued as normal with the regular blunders, hypocrisies and mishaps from the Bush Administration, then on a normal day I happened to turn on the Oprah Winfrey show—through the miracle of satellite television– and caught a glimpse of a fellow by the name of Barrack Obama. I was curious and assumed like most people that he was a bit audacious, hopeful, naïve and kind of cute. I followed politics, but only as a curiosity, I lost all hope in the system and would live as most expat Americans do, quietly praying never to be sent ‘home’. But I have to say as the election drew to a close I began to get on board with the big idea of small change and felt like maybe this could happen. The night of the election I put my children to bed, kissed my husband and prepared for the long night ahead. I watched as the states began stacking up in Barack Obamas favor and grew more positive with each one. When the election was called at 11pm eastern time, 6am my time, I dropped to my knees a wept. I wept for all my relatives who felt fear in believing, I wept for all the men who had to wear the “I am a man” signs in the south, I wept for the WWII vets who came home from relieving oppression only to face it at home, I wept in shame for doubting my country, I wept for the challenge of a hopeful man against the winds of doubt and lastly I wept for the knowledge that the Whitehouse, I visited as a child, will now have a family that resides in it that looks like mine. As a matter of fact I tear up at every mention of President-elect Barack Obama because I am proud, I am on-board with hope, and I am back to loving the country I almost gave up on. Hopefully she welcomes me back…
I would like to end this open letter to America the way I did when I woke my children up the day after the election, please forgive the sentimentality because this really happened, it went like this: Good morning girls, Barack Obama won last night and I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the republic for which it stands ONE nation under God INDIVISIBLE with liberty and justice for ALL. It was a little corny but necessary. Oh and there is no need to kill that fatted calf for me because I’m a vegetarian.
A Former Prodigal Daughter