I spent the summer of 2007 working for a language company in Los Angeles. It would be my first time working with international students - and the first time I'd be held to an American identity and narrative outside of my own understanding.
You see, I never considered myself American before then. I knew that my family had been here for a very long time, that we'd fought in wars and had been the "coworkers in the kingdom of culture" that were so often lauded and coaxed into popularity by W.E.B. DuBois. I was the daughter of two Black people, and a granddaughter of people who'd left Mississippi in a mass exodus trumped only by that original leavetaking in the book of Exodus.
I was a Black person. I had a nation (and associated identity) tethered to "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing" as its anthem, and the Pan African / UNIA flag as its banner, and Juneteenth as its Independence Day. The Stars and Stripes was additional and the Star Spangled Banner was a song tied to land - not people.
Okay, fast forward to Fall 2007. I'm an undergrad at a university founded by Swedish Covenant Christians in Albany Park, a neighborhood on the north side of Chicago. I'm at a popular on-campus hangout spot when a Palestinian student walks up to me and inquires about the necklace I chose to wear that night with an accusatory tone.
It's the Hebrew letter "chai" and keeps me tethered to the aforementioned summer when I met a Polish-American Holocaust survivor at the Museum of Tolerance and broadened my definition of human suffering and the underside of History.
For the first time in my life, I was aware of being perceived as an American sympathizing with a system of oppression that kept people like my interlocutor underfoot. For the first time in my life, I'd noticed being seen as a documented person (not only of a first world country, but THE first world country) and by wearing the wrong thing, having cast my lot with the wrong team.
I still wrestle with the implications - with the language for the blasphemy that only US privilege can (and so often does) perpetuate through billions of dollars of annual support and romantic ideals of Old Testament times of yore.
That night, I was an English-speaking Black American woman being reamed out by a Palestinian man for wearing a necklace with a Hebrew letter for a pendant.
Which leads me to the overwhelming questions: Who am I (and how is that identity subject and superseded by others' narratives)? How do I negotiate History in a way that honors my cultural inheritance and holds accountable the peculiar institutions of the day? How do I conjure the courage to wrestle with a perceived national identity that bumps up against the narrative of my inherited one?
...and what does that matter to people who are suffering outside of it?