Archive for Saturday, July 31, 2004

Yes, America is great, but with caveats

July 31, 2004

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"Is America great?"

Saido Kamara, a 22-year-old college student from Sierra Leone, asked me this from the back seat as we traveled a road outside Freetown. His tone wasn't that of a man seeking information but rather, confirmation, somebody to validate what he had already decided. He asked the way you'd ask an angel if heaven was great.

It took me a second to respond. I didn't want to feed some fantasy that American skies are always blue and American streets unfailingly gold. Better, I felt, to give a balanced and realistic view of a nation he has visited only in his daydreams. So my answer contained a lot of "Yes, buts."

Yes, but we still have many problems. Yes, but things are not perfect. Yes, but our people don't always get along.

Not that my caveats had any discernible effect on Saido, whose nation is only two years removed from a brutal civil war. As I said, he had made up his mind long before he ever asked.

Saido was my translator for this leg of a 13-day Miami Herald assignment in West Africa, my first sojourn in the birthplace of humankind. It was, as you might expect, a stunning experience, one I plan to bend your ear about for the next few installments of this column. For now, suffice to say that I saw and heard things that will be with me the balance of my life.

One of which was Saido's question. By that time, I had become used to Africans speaking my country's name as if its syllables left a taste of honey in their mouths. Everybody wanted to go there or, failing that, send their children. Get an American education, make some American money, live an American life. "America is paradise," a customs agent assured me with a blinding smile.

Back here in paradise, you'd be hard-pressed most days to find many people who would agree. Politically, we're more polarized than we've been in a generation, and it seems increasingly the case that what divides conservative from liberal is less honest disagreement than open contempt. We are split by war, vexed by a malfunctioning education system, riven by isms of race, gender, class, age, faith and sexual orientation.

Not that you have to touch on those great issues to raise the blood pressure of the average one of us. We live in a nation where the interruption of cable service counts as a disaster and a refrigerator breaking down passes for catastrophe, a nation where self-gratification is a solemn obligation and we feverishly pursue our ultimate selves -- thinner! richer! happier! -- under the tutelage of self-help authors and talk-show experts.

And then you meet a woman whose arm was lopped off at the shoulder by "rebel" soldiers.

And then you meet a man who rests in a shanty beside an open sewer where pigs defecate and children play.

And then you meet a child who takes your hand and kisses it as if in worship.

"America is paradise," they tell you. "America is great."

It has a way of changing your perspective.

The day I got back from Africa, the ice cream man came by my house. For as long as I can remember, James, an immigrant from Sierra Leone, has spent summers driving through my neighborhood ringing his bell and dispensing cold treats from his truck. But when he heard I was back, he parked the truck in my driveway and came in to talk to me.

James has not seen Sierra Leone since he left it in 1989. In the interim, he has become an American citizen. My ice cream man actually has two jobs -- the other involves delivering medical supplies. His day starts at 2:30 a.m. Sometimes, he is so sleepy he has to pull his truck over for a nap. He told me all this without complaint.

"Is America great?" Saido had asked. I forgot to pass that question on to James. But then, I don't think I need to.

I think I know what he would say.

-- Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald.

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