This I Believe

Richard - McAllen, Texas
Entered on May 24, 2007
Age Group: 50 - 65
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On the night of July 20th, one week before my thirteenth birthday in 1969, my father went to bed early. The older children in the household knew better than to make noise to wake him up, but on this night we had good reasons to. Glued to the shortwave radio, we were tuned to the Voice of America; it was 9:00 p.m., Ghana time. No noise from the five boys and my sister; we could hear each other’s heartbeat. Then, came this transmission:

EAGLE: 540 feet, down at 30…400 feet down at 9…forward… coming down nicely… kicking up some dust…30 feet…shadow…drifting to right a little…O.K…Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed!

We erupted into the greatest noise ever made at night in the house, which woke my father up. With sleep still in his eyes, he inquired to the effect, “What the hell is going on here?”

“The eagle has landed” we said together.

“The eagle has finally landed,” I added.

He smacked me on the side of the head. “Eagles don’t fly in the middle of the night, you idiot!” He said. “You should know better; your name is eagle.”

“The Americans have landed on the moon,” Yvonne said.

My father looked up at the moon momentarily and said, “Go to bed, you fools. Do you see anyone walking up there?”

I laughed so hard, it hurt. His wisdom in age was no match for our knowledge in science. Perplexed, he gave up and warned us to keep the noise down.

That was my birthday gift from America, the first birthday gift I ever received till then. It was a gift of victory, sweeter than all the candies I never got. It was a vindication of the hopes I held in my heart ever since that faithful day, three years earlier when I learned in school about Sputnik.

The Soviets’ successful launch of the first satellite, called Sputnik had ushered in a new wave of students into engineering, but not me. I despised the “beep-beep-beep” signature sound of Sputnik. To make matters worse, one of my schoolmates was named Sputnik by his Syrian father, no doubt, a deliberate attempt to aggravate my frustration. There was popular music made in celebration of Sputnik. The composers were all stupid, I thought privately. Those in a free democratic society should win, not communists—this I believed.

We stayed up almost all night waiting for the astronauts to come out of the spacecraft. When Neil Armstrong finally said, “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind,” he spoke directly to me. He spoke to the hopes of mankind in the spirit of Jefferson when he declared that “all men are created equal.” He spoke in the spirit of Lincoln when he declared “Government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.” I was a citizen of the earth and also of the United States, the country that had proclaimed, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…” This was my country, the home of lady liberty. I was only temporarily out of it. This I believed.

Though I could have attended college in Ghana, I opted to come to America. I arrived in the winter of 1978, and soaked in as much of America as I could. My first visit to a Midas muffler shop told me how hard Americans worked. Expecting to see four or five mechanics at the shop as found back home, I was shocked to see only one. The speed and efficiency with which the mechanic fixed my brother’s Pinto sent me into a daze. I could not believe that one man could do so much for so many in so short a time. From that day forward, I brought that diligence to everything I did. Hard work and excellence must be rewarded in a free society; this I came to believe.

I worked hard to make ends meet. A military coup in Ghana had cut off any financial support from home. By Immigration rules, I could work no more than twenty hours a week on campus. To save money, I took 24 credit hours in my final undergraduate semester. I begged for any work while going to school: busboy at Peros, short order cook at Lam’s, dishwasher at the University Hospital, Night cleaner at Shonneys, laundry washer at Baptist Hospital, etc. With a master’s degree, I mowed grass in Knoxville Tennessee for a year. My break came when I was offered a teaching job at a black college. I worked hard to teach my students; they needed more help than the average student.

I went back to school and earned a Ph.D. in Government. I thought I had joined the ranks of dedicated teachers whose work is rewarded. Though I brought dedication and hard work to everything I undertook, I have met obstacles every step of the way. The obstacles are sometimes subtle, sometimes blatant. I have been caught in the race game. Whites see me as black, Blacks see me as a foreigner. I have been told by many to endure. They say I’m better off than many in America. But I came to America not merely to endure; I could have done that in my native Ghana. I came to America with the hope of contributing to the great cause of mankind—to make real some of the ideals I learned in my youth.

My questions are many: What do I have to do to be treated like a true American instead of a perpetual sojourner? Why is an idea not as important when it comes from me? Why do my colleagues come to me for answers, yet, I’m never recognized. Why do my students praise and thank me for my teaching abilities and dedication, yet, I’m constantly passed over for promotion?

I’m black and a foreigner, this I believe is the cause. If I were to write a book about my American experience, it would be called “Desperate in Paradise.” I have come to find that America belongs to some more than others. Many are excited to hear me on the phone or radio, but in person, I sense disappointment and indifference. There’s only one answer for that—color!

America is my home. I am American now more than I can ever hope to be a Ghanaian. I hold America dear in my heart, but prudence dictates that I return to whence I came. Retreating back to Ghana may preserve the untainted ideals of America in my heart so that when I speak of her in the future, it will be with the same passion I had as a young boy listening to Neil Armstrong in the middle of the night; this I believe.