I was at Edwards Air Force Base one fall weekend some time ago, camping with two of my best buddies and 400,000 of our fellow Americans on that famously flat and humongous dry lake bed, waiting for the space shuttle Discovery to return to earth.
We three Asian Hawaiians, four mainland college years and half an ocean from home, walked somewhat incredulously down the avenues between the boxy rows of recreational vehicles, tens of thousands of them sprawling across that dusty, white hardpan high in the California desert. Generators droned to power flickering televisions, the smell of burning meat and combustion engines filled the air, and everyone it seemed was flying an American flag.
I had never seen such an unashamedly patriotic display, not in Hawaii, certainly not in the jaded and segregated Los Angeles I lived in at the time. We walked along acknowledging everyone who passed, as we were taught to in the Islands, when my friend Kenny was buttonholed by a white man, a retiree it looked to me, sitting with his wife under the awning of his camper. The conversation quickly turned, as it often does when Asian Americans get around older, pre-politically correct white folk, to what exactly were we?
It always irked me, this questioning from the mainland haole, this having to explain my presence in the country of my birth, my face seen as an invitation for curiosity or suspicion.
But Kenny, the most serious and introverted of the group, or so I thought, took it in stride. He was Korean, he said with a smile, or at least his parents were.
Oh yeah? replied the older man. I was in Korea during the War.
I'll never forget what Kenny said. Hey, thank you for fighting to save South Korea.
The white man, this proud veteran with that open American way of his, smiled and grew animated. And with that they were friends, yes, I believe they were.
Why do I remember this all these years later?
I can't say for sure. Being the most dour and cantankerous of the friends, having been baptized into a wariness and subtle contempt of whites by the stories of my plantation-raised mother and having it confirmed at my predominately Republican college set in the heart of a Chicano and African American ghetto, all I could see was an old man, air polluting, ignorant, probably racist, conservative, white.
Kenny saw something else.
I come back to it, to this day. That conversation burned a hole in the weft of things, revealing behind it something I'm afraid to look at long enough to know.
And now here we are neck-deep in, as Wendell Berry might say, the latest in our series of wars to end war. And I find myself once again running gauntlets of American flags.
I'm not in favor of war, this one in particular. The articles that follow in this issue I agree wholeheartedly with.
But there is another battle cry I'm being reluctantly drawn to. A cry for jihad no less, the original jihad my Muslim brothers tell me, the battle inside to vanquish the hatred and pride of my own heart.
I saw Cornel West speak at a local university a few months back. He was asked whether he thought the campaign seeking reparations for the descendants of African American slaves would succeed.
We don't know, he answered in that folksy and sincere way of his. We'll have to see if we're serious about democracy or just like to say we are.
What I believe brother Cornel was saying was that putting reparations on the nation's agenda will require those of us who are not African American to stretch ourselves beyond what we have been historically capable of. It will require going down deep to where the funk is, the earthy raw stink of what's inside, the guts. And in the end we will have a measure of who we truly are.
Can Love Save the World? We don't know.
I'm not sure I want to find out, as much as I like running my mouth about it, because this Love will necessarily mean loving people I disagree vehemently with, am afraid of, or feel self-righteously superior to. People I feel I have a right to shun. And you know how we Americans are loathe to give up our rights.
Can Love Save the World?
It's a good question. A masturbatory question if we're just posturing. A necessary question if we ever hope to live peaceably on this planet. But make no mistake about it, a dangerous question if we're serious because it may demand everything we have and then, in the end, reveal us for who we truly are.
Sheldon Ito, Associate Editor
p.s. Before I go, let me give a big shout-out to my fellow B-Teamers (the Killer Bs I call them) who put this issue together while A-Team editor Sarita vG was on sabbatical. Homegirl Stef (Oaktown in the house), my Asian sistah Pam from that exotic city of the East, Boston, Mass., roundaway girl Lynn B. from Colorado (glad you got the roof up, girl), the PFN playas, all the contributors from across this big ugly country of ours and the wider world, and finally my omni-talented boss, the Big Toe of this unit, to whom I owe unending gratitude and a small Coke, Carol “de” Estes. You may be the B-Team, but you brought your A-Games to this issue and I love you all.