Like I did last year, I attended the Naturalization ceremony at the open air Fisher Pavilion at Seattle Center. It was very similar to last year. If interested, you can read about last year’s festivities here.
Like last year, it was a beautiful day. A gospel choir sang. Native Americans did a song / dance / story. Among the 500 people, some 83 countries were represented. Among the largest contingents were people from Mexico, Vietnam, Cambodia, and the Philippines. It was, just like last year, an uplifting and cheerful day that left me feeling inspired.
Even though it left me with such feelings, it just so happens that at the same time that I attended this ceremony, I was in the midst of re-reading Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. Reading this at the same time as attending the ceremony left me with what best could be described as mixed emotions.
For those not aware of it, Zinn’s history was written close to 40 years ago (with new chapters added until he passed away some years ago). At the time that he wrote it, he was concerned that most American histories were written in a very one-sided, traditional and nationalist perspective. He wrote a history that was focused on the voices that history never records: those of the oppressed, powerless, and disenfranchised.
Re-reading this book at the same time as attending the naturalization ceremony brought new light to it. At the ceremony speaking were people of power. The Governor was there. One of the US Senators was there. The King County Executive was there. All of this gave the ceremony the trappings of state power.
On that day, under the auspices of this state power, the Native Americans did their dance. The US history of Native American treatment is sordid. There was literally not a single treaty that was signed with a tribe that was to last “As long as grass grows and water runs” that was not broken by the US government. Native Americans were hunted and herded nearly to their deaths.
Likewise, as the gospel choir sang, I thought of our nation’s treatment of Blacks. Black slaves were brought to America in 1619 to Jamestown, barely 10 years after it was founded. Our country truly was stamped with slavery from its beginning. From that sad start, our country has had 250 years of slavery, 100 years of Jim Crow, and some 50 years (and counting) of mass incarceration.
A large number of the new citizens were from Mexico. Think back to 1846, when America was hankering to fulfill its manifest destiny and bestride the entire continent. The only problem was that there was another nation in its way. After encouraging Texas to fight for its independence, James Polk later sent the American army down to Texas. There it knowingly made camp and built forts in what was Mexican territory. When the Mexican military engaged the US army in a minor skirmish on its own territory, the US government immediately claimed that it was under attack and that it must defend itself. In the resulting lopsided war, the US army nearly entered Mexico City. There were talks that maybe the US should just take all of Mexico. Instead it took only half. It paid a pittance for Arizona, California, New Mexico, and part of Colorado. Manifest destiny was ours.
Similarly, a large number of citizens were from the Philippines. Think back to the Spanish American War. Under what was at best murky circumstances and with a large assist from the newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst (“Remember the Maine!”), the US declared war on Spain. In the ensuing war, the US gained more territory, including the Philippines. This was, however, news to the Filipinos, who thought that they were fighting for their independence. After careful reflection, William McKinley decided that the Filipino people just were not prepared to take on the challenge of self rule and that it was the US’ responsibility to help lead them (Rudyard Kipling’s White Man’s Burden). Considering the fact that the Filipinos had a declaration of independence, a president, a constitution, and a congress, that’s ridiculous. In the ensuing war (called the Philippine-American War in the US and the War of Independence by the Philippines), Americans were accused of mass atrocities. Full independence was finally granted in 1946.
Finally, there was the large number of new Vietnamese and Cambodian citizens. I scarcely have to talk much about that. The Tonkin Incident, used to gain military authorization for the escalation of the Vietnam war, was later proven to have nothing to do with North Vietnamese forces. During the war, there were over one million Vietnamese deaths. Atrocities were committed. There was mass, indiscriminate bombing. Neutral countries were bombed (hello Cambodia).
It was interesting to me that one short ceremony managed to have a touch point to so many dark chapters in American history. This is especially so because it was such an overwhelmingly positive, reinforcing ceremony celebrating America and its diversity in one of the most progressive cities in the country.
Obviously, the gospel choir and the Native Americans chose to be there. Even more so, the immigrants from nations that America has such a checkered history with have voluntarily, enthusiastically, and with great effort become citizens of America.
It’s interesting to me why that is so. Is it that, even given the history of America, the promise of America still holds? The American ideal? The idea that it’s the land of opportunity? That if you work hard you can achieve your dream? Do so few other countries offer even the dream of such a thing?
Or is it the power of being #1 and everyone wanting to be on the winning team? Even today, the US is the only hegemon on the planet. Its military, economy, and culture dominate the world as no other country ever has. Everyone wants to be on the winning team.