When my family came to the US as refugees back in the late 1980’s, we were one of several families sponsored by a small Episcopalian church in Durham, North Carolina. In hindsight, it is quite remarkable that that small church with about 50 members was able to support multiple families like ours. They provided places to live, cars for families to commute to and from work, assistance with enrollment of government programs like food stamps, and many other refugee relocation services, all through the efforts of the members of the church.
After we were settled and my siblings and I were enrolled in our respective schools and we all began to get acclimated to the culture, a family “controversy” erupted. There were different opinions regarding whether or not we should continue to attend the Episcopal church on Sundays…the same church that sponsored us. We were brought up in the Ethiopian Orthodox Christian tradition and the Episcopal tradition was new to us. Those in the family who were proposing NOT continuing attendance made their argument by pointing to examples of other refugee families who were sponsored like we were but had long ago stopped attending the church.
In reality, there was no real “controversy” as there was one person who made ALL decisions in the household – our father. Our father made it very clear from the moment the question came up that we would all continue to attend the church. That was the edict and there was no appeal granted. I remember his argument vividly because it has helped to shape my own personal principles: The members of the church were incredibly generous and kind in what they did for our family. How could we not show gratitude for their sacrifice by at least accepting their invitation to fellowship with them?
In my experience, this type of gratitude and appreciation is a common sentiment among the vast majority of refugee families and other immigrants to the US. For many, America represents an opportunity to restart; a respite from turmoil; a protection from injustice. What starts out as a sentiment of relief transforms to love, appreciation, and pride at being part of the American story. And then comes the ultimate goal: an invitation to recite the Pledge of Allegiance and become a United States citizen. That invitation is not only a privilege, but also an obligation. An obligation that starts with a simple act but translates to a long-term and meaningful engagement as part of a family. Much in the same way that our attendance at the Episcopal church led to the development of true friendships and bonds that lasted way beyond our time in Durham, North Carolina.
So when I heard about the controversy surrounding the now infamous Coca-Cola commercial during the Super Bowl, it surprised me. Coca-Cola ran a one-minute commercial where the patriotic “America The Beautiful” was sung in 7 different languages. The singing of the song in any language other than English has apparently upset a lot of people who feel it devalues our American culture and takes away from the true definition of what being an American is all about.
In my opinion, the commercial in itself was not too remarkable. But since a critical mass of people have decided otherwise, I add my commentary into the mix only because this is a topic that directly relates to my story as an African immigrant to the US.
The commercial was a simple display of unity; not an affront to American-ness. To those who feel that the definition of “America” has been bastardized, I would simply say that the multi-lingual singing of “America The Beautiful” is not symbolic of the disappearance of American culture. It is a confirmation of its makeup.
There was nothing sinister or threatening in the message behind the message. Every year during the Super Bowl, the spirit of American-ness is predictably teased out and Coca-Cola tried to tap into it to sell some Coke. I imagine the marketing folks at Coca-Cola are quite pleased with the attention their work has received. Everyone else, on both sides of this surprising debate, feels pretty bad about this. I know I do.
I don’t know what to call it. Is it racism? Is it xenophobia? Is it a misunderstanding? Whatever it is, I get the impression that my story as an African immigrant is a source of derision for some and it makes me wonder what our dear friends at the Episcopal church in Durham would think about all this. Our successful resettlement in the US became their mission and we repaid their devotion by reciting the Pledge of Allegiance and, most importantly, taking up our responsibility as American citizens.
As far as I am concerned, that is how we “pay it forward”. That and turning around and helping the next family that comes in looking for refuge.
And if someone recites America The Beautiful in their mother tongue…in a consumer product commercial!…it is not a sign of disrespect or subversion or the beginning of the end for the “American way”. It’s just gratitude communicated by people like me for the countless good people of this country who supported us during a difficult transition period.