“If you don’t like it, then why don’t you just leave?”
It’s a phrase we’ve all heard before, once uttered by elementary school children, and now the rallying response of the conservative American right.
It was only weeks ago — during a moderately heated back-and-forth that began with the United States’ impending election — that a family member first volleyed this retort in my direction.
“If you aren’t proud to be an American,” she snapped, “then maybe you should leave.”
The Privilege of Leaving
At its origins, the “just leave” rejoinder is problematic on many levels — not the least of which is the implicit assumption that folks have the means to just pick up and abscond.
Revisiting memories of childhood trips to my paternal grandparents’ home, I am reminded of my family history — relics that adorned near every wall: a map of County Clare, Ireland, where my great-great-grandparents emigrated from; the watercolor painting of Knappogue Castle, said to have been built and inhabited by the McNamara’s, my powerful and influential Irish ancestors; a bronzed and weighty coat of arms.
I have spent my entire life in the U.S., but I was raised to lay claim, first and foremost, to my ancestral Irish heritage. I may have been born in America, but my family would be quick to remind you that they are from Ireland.
Only now, as an adult — in seeking to better educate myself about the painful truths behind the storybook American history I learned in school — am I just beginning to understand the implicit privilege of this claim.
Nowhere But Home
For Black Americans, our forefathers worked to ensure that their own ancestors had all linkages to their identities erased.
“Slavery in America required turning human beings into property by stripping them of every element that made them individuals,” writes Nikole Hannah-Jones in the New York Times Magazine article, “The Idea of America”—the first of a series of stories known as The 1619 Project, which seeks to reframe the American narrative of our country’s founding.
In the Project’s inaugural article, Jones details “seasoning,” the process by which native Africans were forced to give up their native tongues, cultural and religious beliefs, and given names — their identities and bodies subsumed by the machinations of American Slavery. “Our speech and fashion and the drum of our music echoes Africa but is not African. Out of our unique isolation, both from our native cultures and from white America, we forged this nation’s most significant original culture,” Jones writes.
Where then should Black Americans turn to, when faced with the suggestion that they accept the country as it is or leave? And what of Indigenous Americans? To what country should they abscond when they tire of the racism and ridicule?
The Lies We Tell Ourselves
“In a heartbeat,” I told my family member. “I’d leave tomorrow if I could.”
And yet, even as I said it, I knew it was a lie. To leave is to give up, to say that I don’t want to or don’t care to make our country better.
What I want is a country I can take pride in.
In February, standing on the doorsteps of my fellow Americans, encouraging them to vote in the spring primaries, I felt alive with the idea that America could be a better, more equitable country for its people.
In June, marching down the long corridors of the Nation’s capital city, George Floyd’s name on my tongue, the rallying cry of justice in my heart, I felt innately aware of our power as Americans to stand up and fight for our people — specifically those whose ancestors were violently forced to give up their culture, their names, and their families to build one of the wealthiest countries in the world.
For are they not, in so many ways, more American than me? Have they not given so much more? Did they not fight harder to make this country what it is today? If I am an American and they were not, what then does it mean to be American?
This Country Isn’t Broken; It’s Functioning As It Always Has
“I love America more than any country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”
Poet and novelist, James Baldwin wrote this line in his 1955 essay collection, Notes of a Native Son. Fifty years later, his words feel as poignant in today’s America as they ever have.
Walking the streets of Washington, D.C., traffic circles spinning together, funneling your body towards its center, one cannot help but feel the architectural intentionality of the city’s design, in itself an homage to America’s First Amendment right to peaceably assemble. In rank order, the right to protest is one of the most American things you can do — of greater import to our forefathers than the right to bear arms, due process, or receive a fair trial.
Pandemics aside, of course, I could leave. (As I write this, just 45 countries in the world are welcoming Americans — several of whom have their own fascist dictator, deep corruption, and sustained history of bigotry and racism.) But to leave is to forsake those who have come before me. To leave is to give up, to buy the lie that the grass is greener on the other side.
Rather, I am exercising my native-born right to stand in vociferous reproach of America, to wield my voice to call out and fight against the inequities of systemic racism and injustice, to use my body to pound the streets of the Nation’s capital and fight for change, and to leverage my intelligence to ignore the small-minded, partisan chants of the talking heads on both sides of the political spectrum.
And if you don’t like it? Well shit, good luck leaving.