Each One a Bright Light by Lee Herrick

I was born outside of you, in Korea, in 1970, a year of upheaval and revolution. I was adopted and arrived in America in October 1971, at ten months of age, on your west coast, the San Francisco International Airport to be exact, where I was adopted by a White American couple.

In the year I was born, 1970, upheaval and change was everywhere: the Viet Nam War continued, the shootings at Kent State rocked Ohio and the world, UCLA fired Angela Davis, and Richard Nixon signed a measure into law lowering the voting age to 18. In the same year, both Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin died. It was two years after Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were killed. In many ways, it was a brutal time of major change. But beneath the headlines, tragic or sickening as they may be, America’s best self was always churning, always evolving. Even when it’s nearly indiscernible, I believe that America is, in fact, a beautiful idea. Even in the face of great trauma or tragedy, political distress or economic trouble, America churns forward. The America I love is in the people’s heartbeat, the Americans who try their best to overcome or live through what inevitable failures and setbacks will temporarily rattle us.

In May 1975, I was naturalized and became a United States citizen. There’s a picture of me at four years old, dressed in a dark suit, holding the flag, standing in front of a larger flag. In 1977, my kindergarten teacher played her acoustic guitar and sang to the class, “This Land Is Your Land,” and I distinctly remember liking the song and her spirited rendition of it, but I also remember questioning it. It is the first memory I have of feeling unsettled because of race. I was the only Asian American in the class of 30 white children. I would soon experience and continue to experience your particular brand of racism. I would learn that because I was not born in this country, I could never become President. I would not have made a good one, but I can think of some transnational adoptees who would.

I became a student of you. I recently learned that nine of the first 11 U.S. Presidents owned slaves. (John Adams and his son, John Quincy, were the only two who did not). So we Americans have a long way to go, and some hard self-exploration to do. I am a student of your Presidential history and did my Master’s thesis on 20th-century Presidential rhetoric and Aristotelian theory. I also became a student of one of your greatest failures: your inability to grant legal, social, and economic liberty and justice to all people. We can say that progress has been made, and in fact there has been, but then I recall that there are 892 active hate groups in this country and that one of the most notorious recently endorsed a Presidential candidate, and he won.

I am hoping your better angels keep churning. There are many who live here who are suffering and struggling, but you know this. You know there are many who do not care about the suffering, and what would you say to them? I wonder how you look at your own youth, at your own breathtaking diversity, at the state of your own disrepair. I wonder if you believe, like I do, that if we are to keep forming that more perfect union, we must evolve, we must keep churning forward, we must welcome the immigrant, the refugee, and the transnational adoptee. We must balance the rapid broadcast of our failures and disgust with the beautiful stories of resistance and the truths of Americans forging new and necessary revolutions.

Division is inevitable with an idea so great as you, and while we may take steps back at times—this feels like one, to be sure—I am certain that you are durable, that your bones are good, that your foundations are solid. Are there limits to democracy’s elasticity? We’ll see. I believe you when you say that you stand for equality, for liberty and justice for all people, but you’re currently far short of the mark. For now, I want to celebrate you. I also want to fight for what is good in you and for the ideas you espouse. There are millions of people who do so everyday. There will be more travesties, more fires, and more demagogues. But I vow to keep the faith. I vow to care. I imagine millions and millions of people here in America, each one a bright light, thinking and dreaming like I am, certain about the better days ahead.

Lee Herrick was born in South Korea and adopted to the United States. He is a former Fresno poet laureate and the author of three books of poems.

Originally published on Terrain.org as part of the Letters to America series and reprinted in Dear America: Letters of Hope, Habitat, Defiance, and Democracy.

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