The Good Guys
Growing up I thought I was as American as anyone. But can a country built on winning ever value something as weak as equality?
I remember reciting the Pledge of Allegiance for the first time when I was nine. I was the kind of kid who devoured words like she might be sustained by them. I liked Shakespeare — Romeo and Juliet specifically. I knew adults were impressed that I liked him, so I mentioned it often. They didn’t need to know I only liked it because Leonardo DiCaprio was in the movie and I’d loved him since Growing Pains. But I felt no connection to the words in the pledge. I remember them leaving my mouth, one by one, robotic and empty.
“It’s like a prayer,” my teacher said. We stand to respect those who have fallen for our freedom. We hold our hands over our hearts to swear loyalty to our country. We were to take this as seriously as we could. We pretended to do so. Then, we played war at recess, the guns in our hands formed from pure imagination. We demanded the fall of our playmates. “Die!” We’d scream from one end of the playground to the other, “I shot you! You’re dead!”
I knew I lived in America, and America had fought and won many wars. We’d defeated Bad Guys all over the world, which was why I got to go to school even though I was a girl, why I didn’t have to worry about bombs dropping on my house in the middle of the night, and why I spoke English. I did not fear war because I was an American, and being an American meant being the Good Guy. At least those were versions of the truth I thought I knew. Those were certainly the truths passed down to me from adults. I have to assume adults genuinely believe that for the first 10 years of our lives, kids are unaffected by their half and/or non-truths. They’re wrong. We remember.
Where I grew up, in northern Indiana, your enemy when you played war was always Indians, and Indians were automatically Bad Guys because they weren’t Americans. This never made much sense to me because my textbooks described Indians as peaceful, and the movie Pocahontas seemed to agree. Pocahontas was my favorite Disney princess because the shade of her skin was closest to my own deep brown coloring. I knew I wasn’t an Indian. I was as black as my own mother and father. Still, even then, I took what I could get when it came to representation.
My social studies teacher said the Indians had been here, in the Midwest, and then they were not. They had grown food here, and then they had not. I asked where they had gone. My teacher said most of them had died from smallpox after trading for British blankets. “It was an accident,” she said. “The settlers did not know the Indians would get so sick.” They probably cried, I thought. Good Guys make mistakes, but surely those mistakes should at least make them cry.
The summer after I learned about Indians, new neighbors moved in across the street. My grandmother said they were Chinese, but my mother corrected her. “Burmese, Mama. Remember what we saw on the news?” They shared a look. This happens a lot when you’re a kid. Adults say something cryptic, then look at each other knowingly, and you’re totally aware that you’re supposed to be pretending you don’t notice. But you always notice.
I told my mother we should bake them chocolate-chip cookies and welcome them to the neighborhood. She and my grandmother threw their heads back in laughter and walked away from the big front window, back toward the living room. Later my grandmother pulled me into the kitchen and said, “Don’t you go over there with no cookies or nothing else. They probably don’t even know what a cookie is. Those people probably don’t even speak English.”
I stared at her for several seconds before acknowledging I’d heard her. It was the first time I recall being taught that some people were too different from me, and that I should stay away from them for that reason.
That summer my mother told me that our neighbors had come to Fort Wayne because of war. Real war. My mother said bad men were going from house to house, dragging people into the street, and killing them in cold blood. They were killing Christians, my mother told me. If we lived there now, we would be fighting for our lives.
“Why don’t we help them?”
My mother raised an eyebrow.
“America!” I can picture my young eyes, wide and watery.
“Why isn’t America doing something to stop them from killing people?”
She sighed and shrugged.
“Baby, it’s complicated. I am much more worried about when they start looking
for jobs. They’re going to take a lot of people’s jobs.”
Of course they needed jobs. How could that be a problem? We were the Good Guys, but we were more worried about jobs than people being killed? That night I stayed up writing a list of all the reasons we should be fighting for the Burmese people…wherever they came from. I put President Bill Clinton’s name in the upper left corner because I knew he was in charge of when and where we went to war. I told him I was willing to go to war, too, but my brother shouldn’t come because he was no good at fighting. I told him I was smart enough to read Romeo and Juliet, that I was so smart my school put me on a bus three times a week to go to a richer school, so I could learn even more.
I signed it, “With liberty and justice for all, Ashley Cassandra Ford.” There was no response.
Growing up in America means undergoing a process of unlearning. My unlearning began with the arrival of our neighbors, and then it came in phases. I wouldn’t actually see any of the neighbors until three weeks after my fourth-grade year began. That morning I arrived at the bus stop and there were two unfamiliar bodies. Girls, one significantly taller than the other. They had jet-black hair cut into bobs just below their chins. They held hands and mostly looked at the ground while the rest of us stared at them. Eventually, I stepped forward and said:
“Do you speak English?”
The taller one opened her mouth and closed it again. Then she nodded. I smiled.
“I know you’re not Chinese. My mom said you’re Burmese.” The tall one nodded again, and the small one looked up at her. My brother loudly whispered, “Ask them if they know what cookies are!” The rest of the group started to laugh, and so did I. The taller one looked up from the ground and said, “I don’t like cookies.” Everyone instantly grew quiet. She could speak English, but it didn’t sound like when we spoke English. We heard staccatos where we were used to hearing long vowels. My brother laughed again, breaking the silence. “That’s okay. We already ate them all.”
Over the years, my brother and I became great friends with Nwe, the tall girl, and her shorter sister, Win, despite warnings from our family members not to eat anything from their house or tell them where we kept the spare key. Truthfully, there was little to do in our quiet neighborhood besides make friends and walk around with them. “There’s an evil leader,” Nwe would tell me, about the war back home. “He’s a bad man. He would kill everyone from babies to old men.”
She would tell me stories she wasn’t supposed to know, things she’d heard her parents talk about when they were still in Burma, before they shared a look she wasn’t supposed to notice. She noticed.
The second phase of my unlearning required me to accept that, in many ways, I had been lied to about where I lived, who we were, and what we were capable of. If I wanted to know truths — really know them — I would have to look for and find them myself.
One of my teachers had a morning paper route, and every day he brought me a Fort Wayne Journal Gazette. I would read the whole paper, skipping the sports section. This is how I found out Nwe and Win were called “refugees,” and many more Burmese people were expected to move to Fort Wayne and take people’s jobs. My mother didn’t like me reading the paper because she said the op-ed section made it sound like our side of town was an enemy land.
One author reminisced about the days when the Southeast Side had been thriving, before the negative elements moved into houses left behind by his father’s generation. He said at some point, the people of Fort Wayne would have to have a serious discussion about how to fight back against those negative elements. I was confused by the way the people who wrote to the newspaper used the word American, as if theirs started with a capital A, and ours did not. As if the vast majority of people who lived in my neighborhood weren’t also citizens of this country in the very same way. We were poor, yes, but we pledged allegiance to the flag. We all said the same prayer. We were Good Guys too.
The demographics of our school shifted to 65% black. Then 75%. Then 80%. The only mall near us permanently closed. Then a few factories. Soon the only people left were young black families, young Burmese families, and older white couples who watched their home equity slowly depreciate and continued to write op-eds about it. There was a fear that we might even begin to migrate into areas where we weren’t welcome, and that we might carry urban blight in our bodies as if we’d accidentally contracted it from diseased blankets.
The third phase of my unlearning, like for most folks, was characterized by a bit of despair and eagerness to blame.
Across the street, Nwe and Win raked leaves in their front yard, and I silently wondered if they’d brought war to my home. I still felt like I was a good fighter. But I was no longer certain who I was supposed to be fighting. When we force ourselves to know things we’d rather not accept, it feels like something has been taken from us. We lose the version of the world we thought we understood. I felt America turning its back on me and my family, and I was certain I never would have noticed if the neighbors had stayed where they belonged.
What I didn’t get at the time was this: America has always fought to win. To conquer, to show strength, to speak English, to keep our jobs, to remain free, to keep our power, to win. Americans who couldn’t use their inherent strength to become more successful, healthier, or richer, must have decided not to try. Or didn’t try hard enough. That was the kind of American people saw when they looked at my very black, very poor side of town. We had been conquered by our circumstances. More than that, as the descendants of slaves, or refugees like Nwe and Win, we were a conquered people. To be conquered was shameful, and frankly, un-American.
The ascension of President-Elect Donald Trump is proof positive that we are still a country that prefers winning to justice, and appeasing white anger to ending human suffering. We still believe that power is the measure of human worth, and we still give power to the white man who happens to look the part. I was never meant to be free or truly American. A country built on winning at all costs could never value anything as weak as equality.
My neighbor Nwe and I didn’t speak much post-middle school. She became more focused on art and drawing, and I joined the marching band. I want to say that we just kind of naturally drifted apart from one another, but the truth is I avoided her. She reminded me of so many things I didn’t want to believe, but I now had no chance of unknowing. When I moved out of my mother’s house the summer before I started college, I didn’t even say good-bye.
Last year, Nwe sent me a friend request on Facebook.
I hesitated to friend her because so many of the people I’d known from my childhood whom I’d decided to connect with via social media had disappointed me. Most of them had unknowingly outed themselves as bigoted in one way or another all over my newsfeed. I unfollowed people in droves.
On Nwe’s page, I found lots of selfies, and photos of drawings I recognized as hers. She had a distinct style. Her timeline was peppered with stories related to Black Lives Matter and the disappearing Great Barrier Reef. In some ways, we were both still very much the same.
A post caught my eye, and I left a comment, even though I knew better. America wanted me to believe people could be boiled down to anything as simple as Good or Bad because that version of the world serves America, and in some ways, it serves me too. But it felt good to write it down. It felt satisfying.
“I totally agree with the premise of this article. And yes, fuck Columbus Day. He was a Bad Guy.”