Jack, my little man, is my mirror. He is, in so many ways, who I was so very many years ago. He makes me look back at when I, too, was more innocent and did not understand the “subtleties” that history throws at us. He, like me, loves his country and he, like me, lives far, far away from our homeland. Unlike me, it was not his choice but, in spite of his tender age, he remembers where he is from and identifies with the United States. Yes, my son is thoroughly American.
A few days ago, he called me up at work to wish me a “Happy Thanksgiving”. It was his initiative. I don’t about talk this holiday at home. He’d been reading about it on the internet and knew it was on a Thursday in November. He just missed it by a week, which is pretty good, considering that no one is pushing this holiday here. Many Brazilians know it exists, and that’s about as far as it goes, especially considering that it is not a holiday here and has nothing to do with this country. When he called me, I thanked him, explaining that Thanksgiving is on the fourth Thursday of November. He quickly found a calendar, counted the weeks off and excitedly shouted, “It’s on the 27th! Next week!”
So, here I am. How do I proceed? Do I give the lowdown about how the holiday is wrong, how it should be a national day of atonement, or do I give in to the myth? Identity is a tricky thing and, as much as I love Brazil, I am, first and foremost, an American. It’s in my DNA – almost fifteen generations, not counting my Cherokee ancestors who met the rest of my family at the beach, so to speak. The last five generations have been in Oklahoma. I was raised on the myth. I believed in it when I was his age and now Jack wants to know about and celebrate this holiday – which inevitably leads to the next question: how do I teach my son the history of the land where he was born? How do I teach him about who he is and where he is from? How do I guarantee that he will be able to transit comfortably and knowledgeably between the culture of his homeland and that of his mother’s country, where he is being raised? How can I make sure that he will be comfortable in his skin as both an American and a Brazilian?
The question of his Brazilian identity will take care of itself. He lives here, goes to school here, celebrates its holidays, studies its history at school, speaks its language, which he does everywhere, including at home with his mother. Jack – for better or worse (and I think it is for better), like it or not (and I do like it) – is also Brazilian. It is the American side of the question that is more difficult. I am the only American he sees, other than his sister Melissa, who is almost five. Everything I say about Jack’s identity also applies to her.
My relationship with my country has been difficult, mostly probably because I was raised on the myth, the promise of equality inherent in its founding documents. I drank deeply from the well as a child and believed what I was taught. The Constitution was, for me, the most sacred of documents. (In fact, it still is, but more on that later.) Its founding fathers were the prophets of a new age where people were free and where those free people would protect and extend that freedom to others. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, Patrick Henry, and all of the others were my heroes, my role models. My ancestors served on the Continental Line and, during the Second World War, my fathers’ generation defended what those earlier heroes had established. They had all fought for freedom and won. Soon, however, I got old enough to see the cracks in our foundations. My hometown’s schools were segregated. I saw the Freedom Riders being attacked, their buses burned on the evening news. I learned about slavery in school but later found out that version had been sanitized. The Indian Wars, well, they just weren’t even really taught, but Dee Brown would change that when he wrote Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. John Kennedy was assassinated, and then his brother Robert and Martin Luther King. There were riots. Vietnam kept rolling on and on and on, seemingly for no good reason. My Lai was uncovered and the Pentagon Papers were published. The lies began mounting and, yet, somehow, I was still naive enough to dress up in Air Force blue, but that lasted for only 361 days, two hours and 27 minutes. The dream had seemingly died and I began fighting back – against the war, against racism, against those violations of the American dream that I had been weaned on. The years passed. We fought more wars, all of which felt like reruns of Vietnam. (They just changed the jungle for the desert.) I left the country, returned, left again, returned again and then left again, this time more or less permanently, but knowing that the United States has a hold on me that I cannot shake.
And now, my son wants to celebrate Thanksgiving... What do I tell him? The truth? Whose truth? Which truth?
If I look deeply into my own heart, I know I must teach him how to decide whose truth to believe. I must teach him to find his own truth – not mine, not the official truth but his own truth. How do I do that? Well, maybe I have to start with what I know: I still deeply love our country. It is home. Its original promise, though unfulfilled, still rings true in my heart. Those early beliefs of mine – enshrined in the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence and the writings of our Founding Fathers (and Mothers) – are what inspired me and made me fight back. Those principles guided me then – and they still do. Our country was founded to establish freedom with justice. We have strayed, failed, fallen down, but somehow keep getting back up and moving forward. Often it seems that we take one step backward for every two steps forward, but we still are moving ever so slowly in the right direction. With all of its problems, we have progressed in the 238 years since declaring our independence and the 391 years since that supposed mythical first Thanksgiving in Plymouth. Do we have a long way to go? Absolutely. Recent events in Ferguson, Missouri and elsewhere show us that, but we have also come a long way.
And so that is where I must start with Jack: with the myth, because there is, in fact, a kernel of truth in it. He is only seven, so I will start with that kernel, with that same promise I believed in as a child. It is my obligation to teach him the truth as I understand it but it is also my obligation to give him the tools and the information he needs so he can discern his own truth in the future. I must, however, give him these things in a way that will not overwhelm him. He is young. We have time to get where we need, but to get there, we must take that first step.
Tomorrow, for the first time in my adult life, there will be a real Thanksgiving in my house. When we sit down for Thanksgiving dinner, one of the things I will be most thankful for is my son Jack, who made me realize that it is time for this celebration to finally take place.