To my African-American Brothers and Sisters

A love letter, I’ve long owed you

Ronault LS Catalini (Polo) | 9/9/2015, 3:35 p.m.
This is the love letter I’ve long owed you. Long owed, because we’re living next to each other, sweating a ...
A love letter to black folks across cultural and generational divides.

Salaam suadara saudara hitam manis (Peace, dear black sisters and brothers). This is the love letter I’ve long owed you. Long owed, because we’re living next to each other, sweating a workplace together, determinedly dreaming a kinder America for our children – but no one’s properly introduced us. Not the way our grandmas, yours and mine, always said good people do.

I am a New American. And I’m pleased to meet you. Thank you African America, for having us in your neighborhood.

Scholars call us “international migrants.” Evening news is full of our families’ desperation. Diplomats and lawyers argue endlessly over whether we’re refugees, or not. Politicians abbreviate our sorrow, and devalue our ambition, by calling us “immigrants” – an unmentionable word, until someone else brings it or us up first. Usually not in a nice way.

This love letter is so late in arriving, because we arrive in your neighborhood shaken, badly. Social scientists say we suffer from profound dislocation, or traumatic discontinuities. Or both. Leaving cozy homes and ancestral homelands, hurts. Killed or disappeared loved ones, hurts even more. We know, dear neighbors, that this your history too.

And then trying to get inside America’s accelerated mainstream, hurts. We are humbled by your pain, by your elders’ and your ancestors’ pain. From Jamestown to Memphis to Ferguson. 400 years of pain.

Early mornings, our working parents dash to catch their two-hour bus rides, while our elders rush to dress well their bright grandbabies, an expression of respect for their beloved teachers. We haste because we know our immigrant optimism will run out. Six to ten years we have, to integrate into America’s mainstream. Then we disintegrate culturally. First individually then communally. Then we’re done.

Many of us bright and bold enough to flee our failed states don’t do so well in super-accelerated urban America. I mean no disrespect to that kind and creative America loved by everyone, everywhere. Our elders still weep about the respect Yank soldier-boys gave our wives, sisters, and daughters – after freeing us from Imperial Japan’s occupation army. Everyone still smiles about the thick Hershey bars they gave our kids.

But because this is a love letter just between brown and black folks, asking to lay an honest foundation for our nascent relationship – let me tell you: Up close, many American institutions feel really heartless to us. Really loveless. To be clear, I’m talking about this nation’s educational, financial, social, and law enforcement, machinery – not about our tired neighbors, not our over-worked bus drivers or school teachers.

This heartless machinery is bad, dear Black America, because in the absence of a deliberate relationship built on our agreements and differences, on our shared joys and sorrows, you and me will daily acquiesce to institutionally-conditioned narratives about each other. Clichés incapable of carrying your or our cultural complexity, our simple sincerity.

These institutions are tough. After 150 years – after Presidents Lincoln and Johnson and Obama trying – the United States has still not integrated its black and white streams into a shared mainstream. Not even here, on the rich intersection of Rivers Willamette and Columbia. Here, so near our Pacific’s grand clockwise sweep of energetic commerce, ambitious peoples, and new ideas.