In 1985, at age 20, when I boarded an Air-Jamaica flight to Atlanta with $120 in my pocket, I remember thinking that was the first day of my life. I had chosen America as the place where I would forge and manifest my destiny.
Thirty-six years later, I can say with force that not once has America let me down. I have faced my fair share of racial discrimination over the years. However, I never considered myself a victim. America’s story is ongoing. It is made up of my values, my vision and my ethos. America is a canvas on which I can write the script of my life. This script will be an emulator for others to follow, a template on which to pin their ambitious identities.
People ask me what is my formula for success as a black immigrant in this country. I say, first find out who you are in your core, then create a way to transplant that core onto our beautiful republic. America breathes eternal hope, which keeps the soul young.
Second, race is irrelevant to my existence and incapable of shaping my destiny. I have always sought to attach my spirit to a nation of individuals who are on the path to personal fulfillment like me. I never allow my agency to be expropriated by others.
Deep down inside, I am an ambitious being with a burning desire for an adventurous future. America is the nation that rewards you for having values that match its core principles.
It rewards hard work, resilience, honor, tenacity, tremendous willpower and a disciplined spirit that is initiative. I succeeded in America because I made an alliance with the country. I arrived not by plotting how to take over the country but by investing it with my irreplaceable moral character. In the name of the best in me, I try to use my virtues as the only legitimate currency to buy a life worthy of an American. I seek faith in the best possibilities of life.
We have to create a philosophy for our lives; to affirm our existence and give us fuel in times of challenge and crisis. It is not the responsibility of society or the state to provide us with such a philosophy. It must emerge from an inner hunger. This philosophy must cultivate an ethic and create a self-taught soul. I believe that from the depths of a soul yearning for a better life – a life of community and belonging – we can begin a process of creating a new planetary humanist ethic.
Since that’s the philosophy I came armed with, it didn’t matter who was trying to get in my way. My existence, underpinned by a life-affirming creed, has been an inoculant and an attractant. My life was never built as a form of resistance or rebellion. Constructing yourself as negative is denying the love, freedom and potential that resides within you. My existence has always been conceived as an intersubjective spouse with others. This philosophy is what I believe has allowed me to feel at home, to confidently assert my right to co-create the moral sense of this country.
America is the first country that inspires the individual to prioritize the future over the past, to shun nostalgia in favor of hope and aspiration. Being American has always meant holding firmly to the life-enhancing moral qualities we develop in our characters. These moral qualities inspire us to develop and maintain deep connections with others.
We are not alienated from our human nature precisely because we have moral values. These moral values are rooted in our commitment to an American system that protects them, that says nothing, and no one can ever alienate us from our core. And nothing can separate us as Americans, despite our varied beliefs and expressions of the good life. We remain united in our commitment to our first sacred civilization in the New World.
We remain bound by a very American maxim which is stated as follows: Your personal convictions may differ from mine, your conception of the good life may be foreign to me; however, as long as you respect my right to hold my life in my own name and do not violate my individual rights, and as long as you do not try to impose your values and your notion of the good on me, then I will defend and enforce your right to maintain your personal values in your own name.
It’s the benevolent American way. It’s the closest way we come to love each other as strangers. This is the only way to forge a heterogeneous but common humanity in our great republic.
• Jason D. Hill is a professor of philosophy at DePaul University in Chicago. He is the author of several books, including We Have Overcome: An Immigrant’s Letter to the American People (Bombardier Books/Post Hill Press). His new forthcoming book is What Do White Americans Owe Black People: Racial Justice in the Age of Post Oppression. Follow him on Twitter @JasonDhill6.