The Statue of Liberty

On my last day in New York City, I decided to see the Statue of Liberty.

Approaching Liberty Island, I saw with my great grandmother’s eyes. As I watched the statue get bigger and bigger, I watched through my great grandfather’s eyes. It doesn’t matter where they came from. They came.

They came almost exactly a century ago, back when the statue was the color of a fresh penny. They came in the cargo holds of ships. They fled from something and also toward something, toward the life I now lead, a life they couldn’t have even imagined.

That is my story. That is America. I retrace their steps past the statue to honor them, and also to search for something–not just for answers, but also for the right questions.

New York City is a perfect emblem of the nation that invented the Bill of Rights–a document more radical and beneficent than the Ten Commandments–while it committed two simultaneous genocides. This is the most advanced, forward-thinking city in the world, we are told, and yet there are still trains that carry mostly white people and trains that carry mostly black people, and the places they go have everything to do with money and how it has been distributed since the first gutless sell-outs of the slave trade and manifest destiny.

Take any Manhattan train north, toward Harlem. In Midtown, where the banks and big businesses are located, the color pallet skews heavily toward peach and beige. By 96th Street, heading away from the money, a change comes over the train car; tans and olives and some browns pepper the mix. By 110th Street, far from the money, the change is complete. The pallet now ranges, with very few exceptions, from brown to black.

What are we to do with this? How are we to live in this brutal country with beautiful ideals? As the great-grandson of immigrants, how am I to navigate a nation that offered its bounty to my family, which only arrived yesterday, but still refuses that same bounty to those who were here before, the ones on the train at 110th Street whose great-grandparents built the bounty?

America is truly great. Perhaps we are the greatest nation in the history of humanity. The problem is, too many of us conflate greatness with goodness. Greatness is not a moral valuation; it is an assessment of power. We are great in the way Alexander the Great was great. Our greatness is awful. Take that both ways. Worthy of awe. Terrible.

On one hand, we earned the awe. No nation can claim our accomplishments. We invented the Internet, the telephone, the computer, the light bulb, the automobile, the phonograph, the electric guitar, the atomic bomb. We created Rock & Roll and hip-hop, bifocals and bubblegum, the TV dinner and the TV. How are we to reconcile the pride we feel at remaking the world in our image with the darkness we suppress? What are we to do with ourselves?