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Book of the week: 'I like being American'

By SHIRLEY SAAD   |   March 18, 2003 at 1:21 PM   |   Comments

SAN DIEGO, March 18 (UPI) -- In his anthology, "I Like Being American," editor Michael Leach has chosen to represent what is best about being a citizen of the United States. He does not deny that, as a nation, we commit blunders and that sometimes the American dream can become a nightmare. But, and he quotes e.e. cummings to illustrate his point, "America is always on the move. She may be going to hell, of course, but at least she isn't standing still."

The anthology is divided into theme chapters: "The American Family," "The American Experience," and so on. Each one contains essays, anecdotes or quotes, some by famous Americans and some by anonymous citizens. All celebrate the American values that represent this great nation: "Generosity, gratitude, peace, compassion, equality, opportunity, and freedom."

Among the famous are John F. Kennedy's inaugural speech, and Martin Luther King Jr.'s letter from Birmingham jail. Recent immigrants are also quoted, each one with his own vision of the American dream.

For example, Kissoon Singh from Pelham, N.Y., said: "I came to America in 1984 from Guyana, South America, with my wife and three daughters. I came to find freedom and opportunity, and miracle after miracle met me. I was a professional tailor and businessman, and within two months I was able to practice my trade again. All three of our daughters went to college, married, and gave us three American granddaughters. Last year I fulfilled a lifelong dream: my wife and I traveled to the land of our ancestors, India. America made these miracles possible, and I look forward to the next ones."

The words "America is a land of opportunity" form a recurring theme, as immigrant after immigrant compares the life left behind to the opportunities available to them in America. From the Ethiopian refugee who escaped civil strife to become a Harvard graduate and author to the journalist who came from Lima, Peru, to the Russian boy plucked from an orphanage in Siberia, America is indeed the land of opportunity. Their stories are told in heartfelt terms, as are the stories of the children and grandchildren of Italian and Irish and German immigrants who landed at Ellis Island.

Antoinette Bosco's father kept telling her, "Antoinette, this is the best country in the world. Don't ever forget it." He left his native Calabria at the age of 13, and walked all the way to France and the boat that would bring him to America, an endeavor that took three years. "My father was not oblivious to flaws and problems here, but he loved being an American, and I who saw my homeland through his eyes and heart, from an early age on knew it was a privilege to be an American."

The chapters are interspersed with brief quotes, like one from novelist John Updike: "America is a vast conspiracy to make you happy." Another quote from national security adviser Condoleezza Rice: "I'd much rather be a minority in this country than any place else in the world."

Americans are happy that they can vote, that they are free to worship the God of their choice, that they have opportunities for education, work and achievement.

There's a chapter on the 10 best books about being American, and 10 best movies, top 10 songs and 14 great composers and artists. If you don't agree with the list, make up your own; it's fun. Would your list of films include, "It's a Wonderful Life" and "Field of Dreams," "The Grapes of Wrath" and "Avalon"?

How about books? "Uncle Tom's Cabin" by Harriet Beecher Stowe was credited to have inspired the Civil War that led to the abolition of slavery, and Mark Twain's "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" is at once "a nostalgic account of childhood, a satire and a stern social and moral record of our country and way of life."

Among the artists, no one would dispute the inclusion of Georgia O'Keefe and Jackson Pollock, Alexander Calder and Andy Warhol. Each one in his or her own way was an innovator and developed a unique style, instantly recognizable.

This book is definitely upbeat and positive, a good thing, maybe, in these difficult times. We are all aware of our shortcomings, but we often need reminding of our good points. The values we admire such as courage are highlighted in the profiles of people who embody them, from boxer Muhammad Ali to the firefighters who lost their lives at Ground Zero.

Director Steven Spielberg might represent creativity and talk-show host Oprah Winfrey opportunity, but they are by no means unique. Each and every one of us makes up this patchwork of a country. Each and every one of us, especially, perhaps, those not born here, have a keen appreciation for the opportunities afforded us each day to achieve, to conquer, and to participate in the great American dream and experience.

Chelsea Clinton told Seventeen magazine, "What does it mean to be an American? For most young Americans I know, 'serving' in a broad sense seems like the only thing to do."

And indeed, America is a nation of volunteers: we volunteer in hospitals, schools and offices; we volunteer in libraries, hospices and parks. We volunteer our time, our efforts, our talents and our money and our communities are a better place for it.

Throughout the world, especially these days, we are admired, loved, hated, despised, denigrated, thanked and praised. Helen Keller said, "Alone we can do so little. Together we can do so much."

And in John F. Kennedy's famous words, "Ask not what your country can do for you -- ask what you can do for your country. My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man."

In the book, Colin Powell pays tribute to all the GIs who died in World War I and World War II, in Korea and Vietnam and Desert Storm. "The 20th century can be called many things," he wrote, "but it was most certainly a century of war."

When I read those words, I couldn't help thinking of our present situation, poised on the brink of yet another war, and wished that there would be some way to avoid it. I wished that the leaders of the world could come to an understanding and avoid yet more bloodshed. I wished we could paraphrase Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and cry out, "Peace at last, thank God almighty, peace at last."

Someone else had that dream before me, and that was John Lennon.

"You may say that I'm a dreamer,

But I'm not the only one.

I hope some day you'll join us,

And the world will live as one." (Imagine)

--

("I Like Being American" by Michael Leach, Doubleday, 176 pages, $19.95.)

© 2003 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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