Giving Thanks for our Country

Jan Richter
November 21, 1999

Thanksgiving brings up memories of turkeys past and pumpkin pie, but most of all, it brings home the complicated stories that give meaning to families, including my own.

Like most Americans, my ancestors were immigrants, arriving in America ready-made from other countries. My grandfathers on both sides chose to hide their ethnic, immigrant roots, ashamed or afraid of their "alien" status.

My German Christian grandfather turned against his immigrant peers when he had climbed the economic ladder out of an impoverished immigrant community. Using a favorite expression—"good stock"—he assigned value based on a person's genes. People of German-Protestant heritage, like himself, were acceptable, particularly those who had found prosperity, as he had. Americans of Russian, Italian, or Irish descent were suspect, and Americans of Asian or African descent were off the map as far as he was concerned.

On my mother's side, my Jewish grandfather hid his religious identity even from his own descendants in order to be successful as a civil engineer whose job was to set up paper mills in small New England towns. He accommodated to American bigotry by hiding his roots.

The grandchildren of these men ultimately had their revenge on bigotry. Almost everyone in my generation married outside of the strict limits of the predefined clan. Family get-togethers showed the uniquely American experience of the multi-ethnic tribe—offspring reflecting their white, Asian, African and Semitic roots. My generation demonstrated in our very personal choices our conviction that we did not have to look the same or think the same to be a family or an American.

You can find plenty of countries in the world where one is fated to be a "have" or "have-not" and where wars are fought and people killed—entirely on the basis of their religious or ethnic or racial identity. But America should stand for something different, a nation where one's talents and actions count for more than one's bloodlines. We as a country have never fully achieved this ideal, but we have gotten closer to it than most other countries. And, as our country becomes more and more diverse, we must continue to try.

My own experiences have taught me the scars that can come with the wounds of bigotry, and the healing that comes with common caring and acceptance. So when people define American with a standard that devalues those who differ, I bristle. When such a standard justifies public prejudice or inaction—helping to maintain the barriers to a level playing field, like unequal schools, inadequate health care, disparities in public supports for family and community needs, or unfair wages for a fair day's work—I protest.

As we celebrate Thanksgiving, let us celebrate together the uniquely American ideals of equal opportunity for all, respect for diversity of color and of perspective, protection from persecution, and the liberty to preserve the quiet personal space where we each can define our own values and goals.



Jan Richter is Connect for Kids' Outreach Specialist.