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by William H. Benson

November 25, 2010

     Robert Kosi Tette is an African immigrant now living in Detroit. His relatives, in his home country of Ghana, in 1998 pooled their capital and paid his fare to America, and he arrived with the equivalent of a high school diploma and a load of determination. He now holds a graduate degree and has “a  relatively successful professional career.” After ten years, in March of 2008, he wrote for Newsweek:

     “Every inch of progress has been achieved through exhausting battles.” He worked at  “multiple minimum-wage jobs,” to finance his education, and finally accepted a professional job, but then, in order to avoid being walked all over at work, he learned to, at least, pretend assertiveness. He signed up for graduate school to give himself an edge over his fellow employees, and all the while, he was struggling with enormous legal blockades to obtain the coveted permanent residency. in the U.S.

     “It was as though,” he wrote, “I had run ten consecutive marathons, one for each year in America, and my body screamed for rest. . . . Most of us leaving home never considered how much we would change, or the scarring challenges ahead of us.”

     Robert’s joys and survival skills are not unlike any other immigrant’s over the past four centuries, for to achieve in America one must grab for an education, for a job, for more education, and so jump ahead of the lazy, the unfocused, and the unambitious. How difficult it can be for a solitary immigrant to arrive in America and achieve even a shred of professional success.

     “The American Dream” is all relative. Christopher Caldwell, a columnist for the New York Times, wrote that “a 75-minute bus commute to a job at a [big-box discount store], which looks like wage-slavery to the son of a unionized industrial worker, might be a dream come true for an immigrant from a poor country,” but “to the average native-born American with no other frame of reference but his life’s span in this country, however, it is not a dream. It is simply the social contract.”

     Other immigrants, such as the Pilgrims or the Puritans, arrived in North America, not as individuals but as families, and in an atmosphere of mutual trust, each family worked their fields together.

     Asians, especially the Chinese steeped in Confucian thought, stare in astonishment at America’s highly individualistic society, for, according to the Japanese-American scholar and thinker, Francis Fukuyama, “Americans assume that ‘rugged individualism’ is one of the most distinctive and appealing aspects of their civilization.” That is not the case in Confucian China, where the family is preeminent.

     And yet Americans, Fukuyama argued, have also demonstrated a powerful tendency to form associations: social ones—in churches, clubs, and organizations; political ones—in fire, school, and irrigation districts; and economic ones—in partnerships and corporations. Fukuyama writes that the social capital, the currency that underlies these associations, is “trust,” for without trust, they falter and fail. And whom do you trust? In your government, your church, your company, or perhaps only in yourself, or possibly, to extend it a little further, in your family?

     Our country’s holidays are observed for various reasons: for religious—Christmas and Good Friday; for historical events or people—Presidents Day, Fourth of July, Columbus’s discovery, and Martin Luther King’s birthday; for those who have passed on; for laborers; for veterans; for mother’s; and for father’s. But what is being observed on Thanksgiving Day? Is it a historical or religious holiday? Yes, we grant an obligatory nod to the Pilgrims, and we pause to thank God for His blessings.

     However, I think that Thanksgiving is more: it is also an observance that honors the immigrant. To “immigrate,” according to Webster’s means “to come into a country of which one is not a native for permanent residence.” America is a nation founded upon immigration.

     The columnist, Jose Expedito M. Garcia, wrote, “Whether we like it or not, when we celebrate Thanksgiving, we are paying homage to the story of a group of immigrants who celebrated their bountiful harvests and good graces on their New-found-land. Thanksgiving is, indeed a living testament to America’s unique character as a land of immigrants.”

     When we, as fellow Americans, seat ourselves at the table on Thursday, surrounded by family and friends, whom we mostly trust, we should think of that family member who prepared the meal, and we should also think about the immigrant laborers, most often from Mexico, who worked tirelessly for low pay often under inhumane conditions in the fields to grow those potatoes, pumpkins, sweet potatoes, and raise those turkeys. And we should think about the corporations that owns the means of production and the distribution channels to deliver it all so conveniently to our local stores. And we should think about our forefathers who risked everything, packed up, left their homeland, and came to America. Africans, English Pilgrims and Puritans, other Europeans, Chinese, Japanese, Mexican—all of us are Americans, and so we learn to be thankful on a single day in November.


     Have a great Thanksgiving!