As I’m sitting in my old apartment in Zagreb, Croatia, before flying to America, I’m trying to remember what the idea of America had meant for me, a young adolescent growing up in the Socialist Federative Republic of Yugoslavia, a country that had been subsequently thrown into “the trash can of history”, to quote Karl Marx (as I vaguely remember from my Marxist education high school classes!).
The ideas were powerful, enchanting, seductive, irresistible. Those ideas had the strength to finally bring me to this land. The land of the free, the home of the brave. Yes, I wanted to be free and brave. Who wouldn’t?
I wanted to believe that America was exactly what it proclaimed it was: a country that celebrated individual liberty, a country that promoted freedom all over the world, a country that supported diversity and equality.
I, together with so many others, did not want to see, could not see the deep, underlying currents that were built into the very foundation of this country: the breathtakingly cruel, systemic genocide of Native Americans and the brazen theft of their land. The kidnapping of African people from their home. The horror of the very idea of keeping another human being as a slave. The “lawful” institution of slavery as the main building block of the society. And then, for centuries, the systemic removal of the people who had built America from enjoying the spoils of their own work.
Oh yes, my father (who had translated Malcolm X’s Autobiography on spec, out of admiration and respect) knew all that. And my Marxist education was giving me a pretty good idea of the way America operates on its own soil and abroad. But, when I came to New York for the first time, in the eighties (Reagan was the president!), I fell in love. And no facts could break the spell.
I fell in love, first and foremost, with diversity. “This could be my home”, I remember thinking. “This could be anyone’s home.” Adios, my little parochial town of Zagreb, with its gossip, its petty envy, its provincialism. Here I come, New York! Here, you can be anything you want, anyone you desire to be. You can be free. You can be brave. Yes, I decided then, years before the turmoil in my country would chase me away, this is where I belonged.
And, as I’m typing these words in my old apartment in Zagreb, I’m trying to remember those ideas that made me want to leave my life behind and try my luck in America. The idea of independence. Independence from fear. Independence from being affected by other people’s opinions, even when that means being left alone, unloved and unpopular. (As it would happen to me and those rare individuals in my own country that dared to oppose the call to arms, the call to hatred, borders, division and – eventually – war.)
In his play “An Enemy of the People”, another bearded old man, Henrik Ibsen, a contemporary of the afore mentioned Karl, says: “The strongest man is the one who stands alone.” Yes, the idea of independence. “J’accuse”, screamed Emile Zola in the face of his homogenous community, a community ready to accuse an innocent man. He stood alone. So did my favorite heroine from dramatic literature, Sophocles’ Antigone.
To dare to stand alone. To dare to stay yourself. To dare to pay the price. The list of my American heroes is long: from Martin Luther King and Malcom X to the early American feminists. Sojourner Truth. Harriet Tubman. Thoreau. John Brown. Eugene Debs. Howard Zinn. Betty Friedan. So many brave, INDEPENDENT men and women. That’s where my admiration lies.
So, yes, there is a lot to celebrate. The spirit of independence lives on. In the person and the ideas of Bernie Sanders. In the beautiful person of Alexandria Ocasio Cortez. (I want her on my ballot for president!) In the work of the Black Lives Matter organization. In the memory of George Floyd, of Breanna Taylor and so many others. And, above all, in the streets. In the power of the people who are having enough of abuse, enough of lies, enough of empty talk and empty promises.
So, on this day, I say, I yell, I scream, from far away: Power to the People! Power to the spirit of INDEPENDENCE!!!!