Watching My Back: Part Four (Conclusion)

When I came to my senses, and left for New York, I briefly moved back to Michigan before returning East to Providence, Rhode Island in order to finish my Bachelor of Art degree at Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). One reason why I dropped out of U of M was that two instructors in the Graphic Design program told me that I wasn’t good enough to pursue what I wanted to learn from them. By the time I finished RISD, I was in several exhibitions and wound up winning an award for doing what an old Ann Arbor painting professor called, “idiot work.”

School provided access to more intercultural exchange than New York. Tribes in Providence were different: you either went to RISD or neighboring Brown University. You either designed or painted; you either painted or were an illustrator. This was the first place where I heard that ‘you don’t look American’ comment. People from Russia, Scandinavia, Korea, Turkey, and other places were quite friendly to me. Those that I had a problem with were fellow Americans. Unsurprisingly I began to see my native culture as intransigent: unable to progress and treat its minorities fairly. Although true at the University of Michigan, I began to truly notice the ease I had when speaking with foreign students. After New York, however, intercultural conversation was virtually akin to getting away from the States. Just before graduation, that is exactly what I did.

In January of 1995, I spent much of the brief Winter-Session term in Paris. Though my French was rudimentary, I felt that oppressive coat of my culture’s intolerance slip off my back on the overnight plane ride to de Gaulle airport. My cultures ––both American and African-American–– however, followed me. No one shoved the stereotypes down my throat (as a few would when I lived in England), but I had the sense that American hipness (much of it rooted in the 1960s pop culture) had as much presence there as expectations of American ignorance.

Between 1996 and 1998, I lived in England to, at first, pursue a Master’s Degree. Though prejudice and racism certainly existed there, it was ––by my limited observations–– not as pronounced as New York, or Detroit for that matter. Still, there were some things I missed about my home country.

When I lived in Ipswich, England as a three-month intern at British Telecommunication, I began to write plays rooted in the U.S. Civil War. This time overseas was a period wherein I felt the most American, and I tried to figure out what it was to be an American. My answer then was this history from our War Between the States. That conflict, for me, was a shared heritage peculiar to America’s modern social and political movements. Perhaps due to the strength of massive stupidity (‘racial’ segregation, wealth disparity, sex and gender discrimination, as examples), the nation’s people had to develop a unique vocabulary for civil rights, human rights, and social justice.

As I thought of these things, I grew homesick. I wondered as well if I was turning into a cranky ‘love-it-or-leave-it’ conservative in my advancing years.

Being that I am through with travelling ––for now–– I have come to two conclusions. One is that it is impossible to remain a non-American for long, and that there is no need to do so. The prejudices and bigotry still dominate my national culture, but it also stimulates the vocabulary for progress. It is a bizarre, self-perpetuating machine. Our President may make great speeches, but with respect to areas of social progress wherein much of the Western modernized world has already tackled.

Another insight is that it is better to stay and fight than run away. Before I desperately wanted to move out of my land of birth. Now, I believe it is only right to seek change where change is needed. This is why I’m interested in the needs of those immigrants who acknowledge the foreign qualities they perceive in me. My mission is not to make them the grandparents of New Yorkers, or the cab drivers for that matter.

So the truth that I lived in England, and that I speak two languages other than English, were perceived as lies. The lie that I was a Baptist was assumed to be true. Granted, this was an unscientific attempt at proving the influence of transcontinental cultural stereotypes, but I would like to think that I have my work cut out for me.