The True Thieves of Greatness Have Always Been At Home
“Go back where you came from!”
On multiple occasions during my North American childhood, this phrase was flung at me and my family. Despite being so young—we lived first in the U.S. and then Canada, from my birth until I was ten years old—I still remember knowing that whatever the people saying this meant, they most likely did not mean the city of Philadelphia, where I was born; rather, they meant some presumably African country that they didn’t know the name of and couldn’t have located on a map even if they did. They never would have yelled that at my friend with a Polish mother and white South African father, who had actually grown up in Africa and moved to North America when she was five years old not speaking a word of English, only Afrikaans; she didn’t look like someone who had another place to go back to. Maybe if they had heard her mother speak, always in Polish to my friend and in heavily-accented English to us, they would have said something about her foreignness. But they never could have looked at her and made the split-second determination that she categorically didn’t belong.
In the summer of 2019, President Trump told Ilhan Omar, an American citizen and public servant—an immigrant with skin like mine, a flawless American accent like mine, from the same continent my parents first immigrated to America from—to go back where she came from. Thus my President implicitly told me, the American-born child of immigrants, the same thing. Through their complicit silence, the people around him agreed, even as they later shunned the fully racist implications of that declaration. In today’s political reality, a crowd can chant “Send her home” about that same public servant, and my President can look on smugly as they do, the angry, gleeful chant reverberating through that rally hall—and then be able to say the very next morning that he didn’t start it or encourage it. Because his supporters’ First Amendment rights give them the freedom to say what they want and he claims he thus cannot stop them; if he happens to be there while they say it, though—“it is what it is.”
When I was in elementary school and got told to go back to my country, this phrase was unquestionably understood to qualify the person who uttered it as a racist. Until recently I believed this to still be widely true. This statement as well as the speaker were understood to be racist because the speaker typically had no idea what country they meant—only that they had observed my skin color and determined that because it wasn’t white, this country could not be mine. Now decades after my earliest memories of racism, we find ourselves in the middle of a political landscape where the President of the country in which I was born can use the phrase “Go back where you came from” against people who were actually born here and who have decided to make this country their home, yet the people around him will deny that it was racist, even though it is such a textbook example. I don’t know how to reconcile with this. I don’t think I should have to.
I was born in America’s first capital, at a hospital that is still a part of America’s first medical school. Eighteen years later I returned to the same city, the same university, to begin my own American life. My parents came to the U.S. for their educations from Malawi, a tiny sliver of a country in southeast Africa, whose technical borders run straight through several tribe-nations that already existed when the British arrived. The colonizers did not care about the lives of the natives they found—they cared about the resources their home countries needed, the opulent lives they wanted for themselves, and how to divvy these up amongst themselves so that they wouldn’t end up fighting each other so often on their home continent. My parents chose to stay here, in America, when they realized that they could speak out against injustice and oppression in their own country and others like it, without fear of persecution or worse. In dictatorships—like the American-backed one my parents left behind in Malawi in 1981—you can’t, not without ending up imprisoned or on the wrong side of a well-staged car accident. As long as we had the opportunity to stay, as long at Malawi’s dictatorship remained, my parents determined that we would never go back.
Two months after Malawi’s democratic transition in 1994, my family actually did go back where we came from. The Cold War finally ended and suddenly America didn’t need to prop up various dictatorships as a buffer against the alleged threat of communism. Suddenly, oppressive authoritarian governments all over the continent collapsed, and a lot of African countries had their first truly democratic elections since the independence era of the 1950s and 1960s. Zambia, 1991; Kenya, 1992; South Africa, 1994; Malawi, 1994. The proxy conflicts of the Cold War had turned our continent into a poverty-ridden, decrepit mess, though; our resources were still being mined and exploited by corporations headquartered in our former colonial rulers’ homelands and in the countries backing our dictatorships. Our populations were being controlled by arms sold to us by the governments of those same nations, cosigners to our ongoing oppression under different, allegedly independent flags. Yet we are the ones who are held responsible for making a mess of our countries.
Perhaps it is they, our colonizers, who should have gone back to their own countries.
It takes a breakdown of monumental proportions for people to decide to leave their home country. They will not leave until things at home are so bad that they feel they have no other options, not if they want their children and families to have a chance at a better life. Migrants all over the world go back at the first sign that things are livable again. We don’t need to be asked. Leaving home is heartbreaking; we do it knowing it could end up a one-way journey, that we might never come back, and that even if we did we may not find a place for ourselves again. We might never see our parents or siblings again, or the land on which we were raised, hear our language and music reverberating through the air as we walk down the street, visit any part of the country and know—without a second thought, without the grinding work of constant self-validation—that we are home. To imagine that this is a decision people make lightly, as a way of merely extracting value from the country they have immigrated to without reinvesting in it, is a total failure of imagination. It is insulting, lazy, and betrays the truth of the ignorant privilege of a spirit that never has, and likely never will, experience the violent adversity of being in a situation where the only good choice is to leave behind everything you’ve ever known, and set new roots down in a place that does not recognize you.
In its 400-year history, America has never been solely white. America’s essential whiteness is the bankrupt idea that nonetheless immovably resides in the hearts of the kind of people who scream “go back;” it is an idea patently, arrogantly at odds with the history of this nation. They speak of people who look like me “going back where they came from” as though there was ever a time when America was a land of non-immigrant descended white people. White people came to America, ostensibly escaping oppression and persecution in their European countries of origin, and then through disease and violence wiped out most of the Native American populations they found living on this land when they arrived. White Americans did not want to do their own work on this land, and so stole people from the west coast of Africa and forced them into slavery. White Americans who had arrived on what we now call the East Coast and then migrated to the South decided the land they were living on was not enough, and so expanded westward, Liebensraum before the Third Reich would invent that policy term a century later. They colonized several parts of what was formerly Mexico, and made—battled—those parts into new American states. White Americans stole, killed and colonized their way to ownership of the land now called the United States of America, and now have the audacity to turn around and say it is us who do not belong, who are the foreign agents in the American project.
Gratitude, the need for immigrants and their descendants to constantly express thanks, to be entirely uncritical when America goes wrong, has nothing to do with us. It is, rather, the need of people who desperately need for there to be betters and lessers in life: the need of people who classify themselves as among the superior in society and require acknowledgement from those whom they consider inferior of this fact. These are the kind of people, perhaps, who have failed at the promise of their own lives, and so seek validation from outside of themselves, in people who had nothing to do with their own failures. In truth, I am grateful. Tremendously so. I describe my own situation in life today, compared to what it might have been without this American detour, as a quantum leap. Even as someone whose family did return to our homeland, and thus as someone who has intimate insight into what my life could have been, it is still a real challenge to try and accurately imagine just what the non-American parallel universe of my life might have looked like.
Part of the promise of this nation is our commitment to the rule of law–not the rule of men. Thus my gratitude, in the places where I have it, is given to the laws that allowed my parents to come and make a new home here, that said that if I was born here, I was a citizen. I am grateful to the Constitution that enshrines my right to seek happiness in this land. I am grateful to the people who work every day to protect and defend those laws and the Constitution, who do the great work of ensuring that these laws are fulfilling their promise to all people and not just some. But what I do not need to do is perform that gratefulness every day that I breathe American air, eat American food, and walk American streets; I do not need to withhold my critique of the ways in which America breaks its promises nor smile in the face of the same kind of oppression that drove my parents out of Malawi’s arms and into America’s. I am not grateful to the boys throwing rocks from their yard as I ran home from school, or to the teenagers on bikes who spat in my father’s face and called him a very bad name while his car window was rolled down one summer afternoon’s drive. I don’t think their feelings about me would change even if they knew of my gratefulness to this land, even if they could imagine that some of that gratitude extended to them.
Today, I have chosen America, and I will continue to past 2020, past 2024, past every point at which I have been told that people who look like me and have names like mine will find their lives worsened in countless ways. But America is, in fact, always to be chosen, every day, for everyone who is a part of this American project—even by those who have never spent a day outside the borders of their own states or even their own towns. For the folks who think it’s okay to tell people like me who critique America and its failures to “go back to your country,” I argue that they themselves fail to understand the beauty at the center of America. They have forgotten that this was always intended to be a place where disagreement was patriotism; that challenging a nation to be better is indicative of one’s profound love for the country. In personal relationships it’s understood that if you can’t fight well, it’s an unhealthy relationship. Why would it be any different for our relationship with this country, and the people who comprise this country whose choices are intertwined with our own? To ask America to be better, to demand that it meet the promises of its laws and Constitution, is very much to love the country, to fight for the country, and to care in ways that those who haven’t had to make painful choices take for granted. Blind devotion to a country is a powerful feeling, but what it is not, is love.
Despite the seemingly intractable mess we are in, America is still, at its core, a great country. But unless we are honest about the ugly truth of this mess, America will lose its greatness and become the latest cliché of a fallen empire. We have become bloated and sick on our lies, and blind to the repeated sleights of hand with the truth. In a way, perhaps, America’s eventual fall is not even that tragic, merely inevitable. And yet it feels tragic to me: to live in an age where there is more information, more knowledge, more mobility available to everyone, and yet to choose to be mediocre, to choose to blame scapegoats like immigrants who supposedly strain the system, rather than the corporate plunderers whose tax cuts have choked off funding for public schools, Medicaid and Medicare, and much-needed infrastructure. Perhaps it is harder to contend with the broken trust of the elected officials who were supposed to care about you, than the stranger with an odd accent who you assume does not. Perhaps it is time to acknowledge the truth that the people who are currently plundering the birthright of America’s greatness are the same people who stole the resources and potential of colonized nations in the name of international peace and prosperity. Perhaps it is time to acknowledge that the true thieves of American greatness are not arriving from outside our shores, but have in fact always lived inside this house, and have always been right at home.
Michelle Alipao Chikaonda (she/her/hers) is a narrative nonfiction and essay writer from Blantyre, Malawi, currently living in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She has won the Archie D. and Bertha H. Walker Scholarship for writers of color from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown and The Seventh Wave’s Rhinebeck Residency. She is a VONA fellow, a Tin House Summer Workshop alumna, and a Pushcart prize nominee. She is currently published at The Globe and Mail, Electric Literature, Catapult, Hobart, and Al Jazeera English, among others.