By Brian M. Howle
There are so many occasions that we native-born Americans (with humble apologies to true Native Americans) take for granted. Familiarity does indeed breed contempt, even under the most innocent of conditions.
With the onset of the traditional Christmas rush, most Americans find themselves in the grips of capitalism at its most fervent pitch. Each year, even with the earlier-than-the-year-before pre-Christmas sales that used to begin right after Thanksgiving (but which now emerge as soon as the last stale bag of Halloween candy is put on clearance sale), Christmas always seems to sneak right up on us. And so we begin the quest for the perfect gift, for the hot toy of the year, for that sojourn into the capitalist mecca known as “the mall.”
A lot of normal, decent folks are out there, happy as clams, polite and obliging and good as gold. Then again, there are – and I swear, every year there are more and more – total wastes of human DNA out there, bowling over small children and little old ladies. Rude, insolent, arrogant, bitter and downright ugly examples of our species gone terribly wrong. I leave it to each of you to categorize yourselves as to which group you qualify.
I recently had the eye-opening honor of attending a Citizenship Naturalization ceremony in Columbia, S.C. My better half, originally from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, had passed all the citizenship tests and requirements and was scheduled to duly and lawfully become a U.S. citizen.
Arriving on an early Friday morning at the U.S. Courthouse in the Capitol City, two things immediately struck me:
(1) Having not visited a U.S. Courthouse for some time, the past transgressions of the lunatic fringe in our country have left a chilling reality to our most basic freedom of assembly – Metal detectors, bomb detectors, security cameras and guards galore, and;
(2) The true meaning of America’s “Melting Pot” moniker.
A quick glance around the entrance revealed that the world’s population was well represented. People from Canada, Spain, Brazil, Mexico, Colombia, Uruguay, Yugoslavia, Nigeria, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Burma, Netherlands, Germany, France, Belize, Guatemala, South Africa, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Pakistan, South Korea, India, England, former states of the Soviet Union, Philippines, Guam, China, Taiwan, Iran, Iraq, and Turkey. It wasn’t the fact that these folks were immigrating to our country that astonished me; it was the fact they were making South Carolina their formal portal for becoming permanent members of our society. Longstanding mental images of weary immigrants entering through Ellis Island seemed more then norm in my mind’s eye until this personal day of awakening. But here they all were, anxiously anticipating the formality of becoming U.S. citizens.
The large crowd of about 350 people lightened by 122 as officials called for those who were actually participating in the ceremony, to finalize paperwork and verify identity . Meanwhile, I observed the families who were gathered-to witness their loved ones’ realization of a dream come true. There is an undeniable sense of awe when you see the seamless tiers of generations assembled for such an event. From the oldest grandparents and great-grandparents – most of whom only speak their native tongue – to the youngest toddlers and infants, most of whom display the physical characteristics of dual ethnicity homogenized to form the new world child, this window to the ever-changing fabric of our population is just a joy to behold.
As the big moment drew near, the doors to the courtroom swung open and everyone jockeyed for position to afford the best vantage point. And you know, it’s amazing how, even though there may be language barriers when such a diverse group gathers, the hand signal for “scoot in closer” is truly universal. When everyone finally squeezed into the packed courtroom, the multi-lingual murmur trailed off as the officials entered and the ceremony began.
Overseeing the proceedings was Senior U.S. District Court Judge Matthew J. Perry, a patriarchal figure of a man with an authoritative yet soft voice. Articulate and eloquent, he welcomed everyone and thanked them for their attendance. He then introduced visiting dignitaries and members of organizations who were providing various mementoes and keepsakes of the occasion. American Legion representatives gave each new citizen a booklet on Flag Etiquette; Members of the National Society of Colonial Dames presented laminated copies of the Naturalization Oath; and ladies of the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution furnished copies of the Pledge of Allegiance and the American Creed, along with little American flags.
Hey – next time some cretin starts mouthing off about those “damn foreigners taking over our country”, ask them to recite the American Creed. Game, set, match.
The keynote speaker for the ceremony was Dr. Ali Akbar M. Haghighi, a Professor of Mathematics at Benedict College. A great moment of levity was provided by Judge Perry’s attempt in pronouncing Dr. Haghighi’s name, due to the fact that after inquiring as to the correct pronunciation, Dr. Haghighi turned away from the P.A. microphone to address the Judge. Unable to hear the response, Judge Perry asked a second and third time, each of which Dr. Haghighi would again turn away from the microphone to answer. Still not sure of his success in getting it right, Judge Perry finally implored Dr. Haghighi to forgive him if he had bungled the pronunciation, and in the event he had, to “come see me if you ever need a parking ticket fixed.” Apparently, ticket-fixing is also a universal champion of the language barrier, judging from the room’s response. (Oh, by the way – it’s Hah-gee-gee).
(Ed. Note: A new federal courthouse in Columbia was named after Judge Perry in 2004. Sadly, Perry was found dead, aged 89, at his home on Sunday July 31, 2011 by a family member. He was reported to have died on Friday after attending court that day.)
All kidding aside, the Iranian-born professor gave an inspiring assessment of what he considered to be the two greatest privileges of American citizenship. First, freedom of speech – a concept that has been taken for granted by too many Americans for far too long. While many of us get all bent out of shape because of offense at content of speech – such as the use of profanity, or the diatribes of Klansmen or Neo-Nazis – we tend to forget that in many countries physical abuse, torture and death can result from the simple act of expressing one’s opinion.
Secondly, Dr. Haghighi passionately reveled about America’s long-standing reputation as “the land of opportunity”. In this country, one truly has the ability to accomplish anything you set your mind to. You are free to pursue your dreams, to go as far as your capabilities will take you. And yes, prejudices do exist and minorities can face formidable odds. But as long as you obey the laws and stay focused on your goals, anything is possible. Too many Americans have become slovenly apathetic towards applying any semblance of a work ethic, somehow coming to the conclusion that government entitlements and handouts have become the ‘90s equivalent to inalienable rights.
Dr. Haghighi made me realize if you took a jaded, self-absorbed American and plopped him down in the middle of any one of dozens of other countries on this earth, where cast systems are unchangeable and unforgiving, where racial or religious or political constraints are unavoidable and unbending, where there is no recognition of even the most simplistic of basic human rights – well, they would beat a path straight through the gates of hell to return to the principles of our Constitution. Geez, just took around – Bill Gates, Darla Moore, Oprah Winfrey, Dave Thomas, Tom Brokaw, Kathy Lee Gifford, Jerry Springer, Colin Powell, Pauley Shore – it’s enough to make your head explode. The land of opportunity.
Dr. Haghighi’s speech concluded with a rousing ovation, and the moment all had waited for was upon us. Judge Perry asked the candidates to stand and state their name and country of origin, due to the sheer number involved, and when all had spoken the entire group would take the Naturalization Oath of Citizenship. One by one, row by row, men and women of all sizes, race, religion, color and creed proudly did just that.
Then, towards the very end of this group of our newest citizens, there came an elderly couple from Colombia. The wife was very soft-spoken and her English was a little hard to understand. But the husband broke from the name/country format and in a loud, firm voice – thick with accent but proud and strong and very clearly English, tears streaming down his face – proceeded to tell the Judge how proud and happy he and his wife were to be in America, becoming American citizens. The courtroom was awash in smiles and applause and more than a few other tears.
Then the group stood, raised their right hands and took the Naturalization Oath of Citizenship. One by one they stepped forward to receive their certificates and handshakes, turning to face flashbulbs, cheers and hugs from family and friends.
Aglow in her new status, I playfully chided my Pêsseginho (little peach) that she was now “street legal”. We headed to a downtown restaurant for a celebratory lunch as she tucked her certificate over the visor of our van. Afterwards, on the way back home, conversation was lively and constant. But as I drove, from the corner of my eye, I saw the visor pulled down and the paper plucked out time after time. Not even her graduation from college this past spring compared to the pride that radiated from her constantly smiling face. Only my pride in her could come close.
So as I wish you all Happy Holidays and a prosperous New Year; as we all hope for peace on earth and goodwill towards man, as you wade into the sea of humanity searching for that perfect gift – I can’t tell you who that rude, insolent, arrogant, bitter or downright ugly person is. But in this land of opportunity, I can tell you who it isn’t.
Feliz Natal, meu pequeno pêssego.
The previous article originally appeared in Alternatives NewsMagazine, December 17, 1998.