By Elaheh Farmand
American flags sprout like trees and wildflowers in backyards and gardens, over and around fences and windows. Tall and grand, they surround diners and restaurants in Pennsylvania, impossible to ignore. With strong winds, they dance almost majestically.
What is the message of this flag, built on stolen land with the blood and genocide of its indigenous ancestors? What is the message of this flag of a country forged on the sweat and labor of immigrants and slaves? Is the message to announce one’s Americanness? Is it to declare that settlers belong here despite America’s violent birth? How does one claim Americanness knowing white settlers took this land with brute force, depriving the indigenous of their livelihood, their farms and sacred sources of water? America is a fabrication created out of the erasure of entire tribes and peoples. This is what I am reminded of when I see the American flag.
Why is there such an obsession with Americanness? If we criticize our government and speak up against its war crimes at home and abroad, we are deemed unpatriotic; as anti-imperialist activists and journalists, our reputations are tainted and marred. In America, dissent is not always welcomed. The obsession with patriotism has divided us as a people. The prospect of, and claim to, the American Dream has clouded our judgment.
What is the American Dream, and to whom does it belong? Is the dream to climb the proverbial ladder, predicated upon the growth of our personal capital? Is it to assert one’s position in society with wealth and fame? Is it to birth another generation to reproduce the nuclear family? Is it to incur debts of all magnitudes so we can house our family in the American suburbs and proudly display multiple vehicles in our driveways?
My first memory of the American flag is from elementary school in Tehran, where our guardians instructed us to stomp on the flag whilst chanting, “Death to America!” and thrusting our fists into the air. It was easier to make us believe that our enemy was another country rather than question our own. In fact, they dictated the teaching that the West, specifically America, had blood on its hands. In a song we recited often, it was our soldiers who bled because of American atrocities:
Khooneh javananeh ma
michekad az changeh to!
The blood of our young
is dripping from your claws.
While I was told to hate America in school, at home, we were preparing to send my Baba to America in the hopes that American doctors could heal him. Baba’s medical situation had worsened, and Iranian doctors were unable to determine the cause for his inability to walk without struggle. Baba seemed healthy and had always been a fast walker, but he had started to experience pain, and had to stop for frequent breaks, even while simply descending the three flights of stairs from our apartment.
How was I to hate this America that I knew nothing of, other than these supposed crimes? Meanwhile, as soon-to-be immigrants, my family was hearing other narratives about America. America would be a place of opportunity and hope. I would later learn that my Maman had started concocting her own American Dream much earlier. When I asked Maman why we chanted “Death to America” at school, she said that we were against their government, but not their people. It was her way of comforting me, I recognized then. A government was more abstract in my mind and, therefore, less tangible to hate. But a nation of people? How can one ask a child to call upon the death of a nation of people? I gathered that the issue was more complicated, and we left it there.
Still, I had to do something about my dilemma in school. After the brief conversation with Maman, I returned to school with a plan. When we lined up for our morning routine before the first bell rang, I raised my fist in the air, amongst a sea of others, but my lips no longer moved to utter, “Marg bar America!” (“Death to America!”) This small act of resistance felt like my personal weapon against disparaging the country we were soon to emigrate to, and where Maman would live her version of the American Dream.
Upon entering the American education system at 11 years-old, my classmates and I, all whose first language was not English, were instructed to learn the Pledge of Allegiance:
“I pledge allegiance, to the flag, of the United States of America, and to the republic, for which it stands, one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
While I didn’t fully grasp the meaning of what I was told to memorize, I still found this ritual uncomfortable. It reminded me of my Iranian school guardians and teachers forcing us to believe what we were told without question. I began to dread this routine in American schools, standing every morning and reciting this pledge before class officially began. I wondered if I could find a way to avoid reciting it, the way I had done in Iran. I tried quieting my voice, but still moved my lips just enough to avoid suspicion; I had to be mindful in smaller classrooms where we stood under the teacher’s watchful eyes.
How odd it was, to say death to a country and then enter that same country and be asked to pledge allegiance to its flag. Why is this flag such an important symbol? To this day, nearly 25 years since arriving in America, I still ask myself: Why do our neighbors feel compelled to adorn their homes and vehicles with the American flag?
In her exquisite memoir, Home Bound, Vanessa A. Bee explores this phenomenon:
“America against the world. How else to explain the obscene display of red, white, and blue flags in places that made no sense? Front lawns, large poles, T-shirts, license plates, eating plates, hats, baby onesies…It was as if America feared that people would forget where they lived, or the long road traveled from their country of origin to here.”
As a new immigrant, Bee then wonders if America’s insecurity is a result of the September 11 attacks, but a classmate reminds her that they were already pledging allegiance to the flag every day before the attacks.
The state has manufactured America’s insecurity to keep its people under surveillance and living in fear. If the enemy is always another country, the enemy can never be within our own. If the newscasters and politicians bombard us with messages that warn of our “enemies abroad,” people start to believe it; or at least, are less inclined to question it. They become paranoid and insecure. Their American Dream comes under threat. The immigrants arriving become their worst nightmare: politicians and the media repeat the narrative that the immigrant is taking their jobs away; the immigrant is committing crimes. The non-English languages they hear become a threat to their culture; “otherness” undermines their claim to the American way of life. To protect their American Dream, their culture, their home and their land, they plant flags in their yards, not merely for decoration, but to remind themselves and their children that no one can take their hopes and dreams away. The once indigenous land is theirs to claim:
“This land is your land, this land is my land
From California to the New York Island,
From the redwood forest to the Gulf Stream waters;
This land was made for you and me.”
As a nation, America needs to accept its violent past. Schools need to teach our children the true history of how America came to be. We need to accept that we never successfully erased racism. Nor did we rid ourselves of slavery; we have continued to wage a war on black America: holding black people as modern slaves in our prison systems. We need to demand reparations from our government for all of the peoples whose lives and livelihoods we’ve destroyed. When the police arrive with brute force to fight with tribes who are still trying to protect their land and water, we must stand with the people in solidarity and resist. Americans don’t have to live in fear and with insecurity, but they must first acknowledge their ancestors’ sins and crimes against humanity. Every time pundits and politicians blame immigrants and people of color for a crime committed, or yet to be committed, we must undo their narrative by speaking up. America was created violently, yes. But it has the potential for beauty.
Individualism runs rampant in America and breeds ignorance and carelessness towards each other. We must reintroduce the collective. Collectively, we can fight off racism. Collectively, we can love. Collectively, we can embrace the different languages and cultures that exist and make up America.
We can build a new and just American Dream that enriches and empowers us. For too long, Americans have been told that the American Dream is to take pride in pulling themselves up by their bootstraps, no matter the cost. In 2005, then-president George W. Bush told a divorced mother of three:
“You work three jobs? Uniquely American, isn’t it? I mean, that is fantastic that you’re doing that.”
Let’s rewrite a new American Dream where we as a collective have free and equal access to basic human needs, universal necessities: healthcare, quality education, financial security, dignified retirement, adequate and secure housing, quality transportation, ample time to spend with loved ones, childcare, and meaningful work that meets the needs of a healthy and sustainable society, not the greed of shareholders and CEOs.
Elaheh Farmand is an Iranian immigrant and writer. In 2016, she founded the series, “Immigrants & Exile: Stories of Nostalgia & Longing”. The series gives space for people to share their experiences of nostalgia, exile, and longing. Elaheh fights for and dreams of a society restructured to place people’s needs and wellbeing before profits. She is occasionally nostalgic for her childhood in Iran, but focuses her energy on organizing, connecting with her community, her family and friends.
Left Turn is sponsored by the Beyond Capitalism Group of the Alliance for Sustainable Communities – Lehigh Valley.
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