These, too, are American stories.
She must constantly remind people that she was born here, born in the same land that her ancestors had occupied centuries before, during the time when America's forefathers were striding Westward. Her ancestors had remained standing in opposition to the divine mandate of the no-longer-quite European colonizers, but they were not a match for the systems arrayed against them.
Many years later, she was born where they'd once stood, but her parents realized that the Dream she'd been sold wasn't for people like them. They'd retreated South, and she spent her days after school feeding chickens alongside her grandmother or watching music videos on an ancient TV, the screen and speakers distorting the words and images she consumed.
Something draws her back. Perhaps it is her ancestors, calling through time removed, imploring her to understand that borders are man-made but birthright is forever. She returns, the lyrics she's learned from American pop stars serving as her language training. She is born to lead; in a fairer world she would be a freedom fighter or a business leader. Instead, she works tirelessly to better the lives of her neighbors, her community. She spends long days on the phone with unfriendly agency representatives, completes applications for schools and benefits, translates medical instructions that somehow manage to be utilitarian and gibberish. She meets a man whose smile sets her heart ablaze. They decide that the struggle is sweeter together than apart, and their destiny leads them away from the land of her ancestors. He was not born here. His forebearers do not call to him from America's soil, but he is a hard worker. He loves her and wants the best for them, loves that she dedicates so much of herself to those who need her. Thirteen years pass, bringing with them two children and, now, a new reality that threatens to upend her family. Clarity: She has become her mother, with complete understanding. The Dream has withered; is reviving it worth the battle?
He carries fear alongside him always and wonders if the constant companion is just the burden of fatherhood. The fear bleeds through his skin, announces itself in the twitch of his fingers, makes itself apparent in the sprinkle of sweat across his forehead and his upper lip. He is allowing himself a rare moment of excited joy: His son is very close to arriving to the United States, the culmination of a series of plans that he set in motion nearly 30 years prior. He himself had landed on these very shores in the days leading up to his son's birth, missing the sight of his firstborn son's emergence into this world. A small price to pay. At least he could leave the boy a name, the same name as his grandfather. He hoped it would bring the boy good fortune.
His life in pursuit of the Dream was work. Sweat was the great equalizer in the land of the free, and he was hearty, hale, and driven. Every day since his inauspicious arrival in New York City, he had worked. Long hours, thankless jobs. Sometimes he drove, contorting his lips and tongue to make jokes in English despite the distrustful stares and indifferent nonchalance of the corporate-styled passenger sprawled across the back seat. Money that he'd worked for but somehow wasn't quite his to spend or save traveled across his palm, but he wrapped himself in the Dream. Work would see him through. He remained steadfast. He prayed. He skipped meals. He left New York because the rent was too damn high and the casual indifference had become outright hatred since The Attack. A friend had mentioned that the living was easier down South. Somehow he knew that this was best, knew that this move would bring him that much closer to his dream, to his son's dream.
After 30 years of sweat, he finally embraces his son, who has become a man: He carries along with his luggage broad shoulders and a patchy beard. Twenty days after this embrace, chaos: a list, seven countries, a ban. His old burden — a gigantic wave of fear — slams into his chest as if to punish him for the audacity of joy; he feels as if he has been thrown into a freezing ocean. After a strained breath, he settles into the one thing that he knows will save him, save his son. He gets to Work.
- © Les Cunliffe | Dreamstime.com
They tell her that she's crazy to try for college when everything is falling apart around them. They say that it is not becoming for a woman to be so selfish, that she needs to dedicate herself to a family, that there are more pressing issues. That she doesn't have what it takes. They say, they say, they say, but there is always a they and there is only one chance to follow your dreams, so she leaps and lands, all praise due to God, on her feet in a new country, the Dream in her sights.
She is 20, faithful, and unafraid. In this, she is not so different from the women who have made this leap before her. The theys are different when she arrives. They're bowed beneath the impossible weight of the Dream: her brother, her cousin's wife, a friend of a friend. Their message is more foreboding, their attitudes more urgent.
It is different here, they say. It has never been easy, but it has always been possible. Something wicked is in the air. They have only ever tolerated her family, but now they were whipped to hateful frenzy, removed from even the semblance of the love that they claimed to give to their neighbors. Had she heard about the man out West who had been shot and killed for simply existing near an ignorant and fearful man? Most of them think like the murderer, beloved.
She was not a black American (despite the incorrect assumptions of those who read her skin and lips), but she knew of their art. She had read their poets. She knew of Langston Hughes and his question that had been asked by the children of slaves well before he had articulated it clearly enough for all to understand. What happens to the Dream deferred?
She would not give up. There was nothing to do but try. She had been warned. They had explained. But she would persist.
These, too, are American stories. These, too, are Memphis stories.
Troy L. Wiggins is a Memphian and writer whose work has appeared in the Memphis Noir anthology, Make Memphis magazine, and The Memphis Flyer.