About a month ago, I had the opportunity to visit the United States Embassy here in Paris with a group of French students. I was surprised by the mix of emotions that were inspired in me. Nestled among a ring of trees, I could see the stars and stripes blowing lightly in the wind and our seal nestled prominently on the top of the building.
Once we cleared the exterior fortress of security, we were brought into a courtyard where our host stated, “C’est le territoire des Etats-Unis.” This is the territory of the United States. I found myself beaming with pride and proclaimed back to the group, arms outstretched, “Bienvenue chez moi!”, Welcome to my home! As we entered the building, there stood a US Marine of Asian descent, clearing us through the doors. On the other side, a young blonde woman in Army fatigues was passing through the foyer. To them both, I gave a nod of recognition for their service. It meant a lot to see them there.
And then there it was. The obligatory picture of the President of the United States that is hung in every government building. I knew it would be there. Its presence didn’t surprise me, yet it called to mind the great paradox that is the United States, punctuated by the long row of portraits of White men that lined the corridor as we continued our tour.
Our Declaration of Independence boldly states, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” We all know the words and we all know who they were intended for and who was excluded. The flaws in our history are glaring, they always have been.
Now, here we are almost 250 years later still battling the same forces who marginally framed our independence so long ago. The recent college admissions scandal is just another reminder of who feels they are entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, regardless of the consequences. Oh, if Thomas Jefferson and his crew had just added one caveat to their words. . .life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness without the oppression, exclusion, manipulation and persecution of others. Is it not possible to obtain all of those things without corruption?
By the time I left the Embassy that day, I felt conflicted and a bit frustrated, bearing the weight of the identity American. I love the United States, but my nation frustrates me to no end. And while I believe that we are more than our flag, symbols and history–that we are in part defined by the very individuals who reside there–I know that our sovereignty will remain shrouded in a deep hypocrisy that undermines our greatness–until we do better. We simply have to do better.