By: Sosamma Samuel-Burnett, J.D.
Founder & President, G.L.O.B.A.L. Justice
When my father was a young boy in India, he dreamed of someday going to America—a remarkable place of opportunities. In the 1940’s in a newly independent India, that idea seemed as preposterous as going to the moon. But in 1969 America put a man on the moon. And just two years later in 1971, my father immigrated to the United States from India. He was 27 years old and came to this country on a student visa. He had never left his native country and only had a few dollars to make his way in a new country.
He spent the next two years laboring in three hard jobs to put himself through two graduate programs in industrial and electrical engineering. He was rail thin but hauled refrigerators on the docks as one of those jobs. He did whatever he could to make ends meet and provide for his family in India. He doubled his course load to get both of his graduate degrees at the same time. And after he received his two masters degrees, he sought and secured his first job, but it was in Canada. A young engineer didn’t earn much, but he managed to get his family immigrated to Canada from India to start a new life there.
Canada in the early 1970’s was very different than the Canada of today. We faced direct racial discrimination every day. Many Canadians had deep rooted prejudices against people who looked like me. We and others were called racial epitaphs wherever we went. And some of my most vivid childhood memories revolved around experiences of racial and cultural struggle.
But my family persevered. My dad continued to work hard and moved from project to project. As a result, my family was moving about every 6 months. By the time I was in 4th grade I had already been to 10 schools. And those schools were scattered throughout Ontario and New Brunswick and in varying neighborhoods – some with high concentrations of various culture groups and economic levels. In New Brunswick, I went to school with children who were bussed in from the reservation across the border in Quebec. In each of these schools, we started every morning singing the Canadian national anthem (both in English and French) and reciting “God save the Queen.” Regardless of some of my negative personal experiences in Canada, I always appreciated the opportunity to recognize the flag and the anthem – because even as a child, they represented for me not what Canada was but what it could be.
When I was in 4th grade, in the middle of the year, my father had a new job opportunity in Minnesota. He had achieved his dream of coming to America. We moved to different locations and houses in Minnesota throughout the upcoming years, but that state and this country became our true home. And in this home country, my father achieved and advanced and our family strived. And in this home country, I began a long process of prayer, study, reflection, and experiences that shaped my relationship with it.
In Minnesota, I lived and went to school in a predominately white community, represented by mostly German and Scandinavian heritages. I didn’t see the range of culture groups I knew in my earlier experiences. But I did experience something distinctive from the moment I came to the US. I did not carry the oppressive weight of feeling that around every corner there was someone who would call me a name or think less of me because of my heritage or skin color.
In fact, I felt the opposite. Both in school and in my community I felt the freedom to be who I chose to be and to achieve in academics, student leadership, athletics, and other contexts. I was blessed to have a great family, great church, great friends, and great opportunities. And like my dad, I worked hard for all of it. I embraced what he embraced – that in America, you can become what you want to become through work and perseverance.
In the many years that followed our move to the U.S., I can’t say that we or I never again experienced racism, sexism, or classism. But I can say that my foundational experiences both in Canada and Minnesota inspired and positioned me to pursue international politics at Georgetown University, international human rights at the University of Minnesota law school, and a career in international advocacy. More so, my experiences gave me compassion for those who struggle in society, conviction to address injustices, and humility to know that there is good and bad in any place and person, including me and my country. And it affirmed to me that how we approach issues is as important as recognizing the issues themselves.
Fast forward to September 2001 — my husband and I had been married for not quite a year when we moved from Mississippi where he served at Columbus Air Force base to Northern California where he would be serving at Beale Air Force Base. The U-2 program at Beale was a coveted, highly selective, and demanding program, and we were looking forward to being part of that community and in California, his home state.
My husband had completed his training just a few days before September 11. And on the morning of September 11, we both were up early in our home in Rocklin. He was getting ready to leave for Beale and happened to turn on the morning news downstairs. I was getting ready upstairs when he called for me. I walked over to the loft that overlooked the living room to respond to him when I saw the TV on. We both stood still and watched as smoke billowed from the Twin Towers on the screen. We watched the second jet crash. And for that moment, we were frozen and almost couldn’t believe what we were seeing. Then reality started to set in, and my husband turned around, looked up at me and said, “I am not sure that I will be home tonight.” He grabbed his backpack and went to the base.
What transpired in the hours, days, weeks, and months that followed would go down as one of the most significant events in history – not only for the U.S. but the globe. I watched news coverage as government leaders and community members from here and around the world expressed their grief, sorrow, and resolve. And I also saw an outpouring of love and concern among community members. And everywhere I turned I saw flags and heard the national anthem or “God Bless America” – a display of patriotism, solidarity, and support in the midst of anguish.
However, what I was experiencing personally during 9/11 and thereafter was complicated. As a military spouse, I renewed my support for my husband, other service people, first responders, and the American public in general. My husband and many others like him served diligently for the many months and years that followed. He was overseas about 280 days that first year and at one point was away for five months straight, three of those months with no contact as his base was on lock down during the period of “shock and awe.” We prayed much, we were concerned about much, but we relied on our faith in God, one another, and support of family and friends. We had to trust that God would protect him and those he served with and that this tragedy would somehow make America better and stronger.
As an individual, 9/11 reminded me of my experiences in Canada and what I had felt as a child. I was deeply troubled at the roots and results of the terrorist attacks, including the growing trend toward “us and them” and “other.” I also was concerned for those who were from the Middle East and those who might look like them – such as the Sikhs—and how Americans may now view them. But I also saw in the months and years following 9/11, a remarkable level of care and service among so many and to so many in personal and profound ways. And the people and places like NYC demonstrated an incredible resilience that was also inspiring.
As a human rights advocate, I was angry that our government had not listened to the human rights community that had warned for years about radical extremism and terrorism, and of religious and other tensions around the world and against the U.S. And I was deeply saddened that nearly 3,000 people needlessly lost their lives, more than 6,000 others were injured, and countless others who were survivors or family members would be suffering and grieving for years to come.
To a large extent, it was my complicated personal experience of 9/11, a mix of patriotism and troubling reality, which led me to consider approaches to improve our community, country, and world. I served in community organizations, developed a missions program for my church, and worked at a Christian university to prepare emerging public sector leaders . What I saw and felt during and after 9/11 required that I pray and act and invest in the future – and these were my chosen efforts. But working toward the future also required taking stock of the present and past.
At that post-9/11 juncture, with the flag, anthem, and Constitution in the backdrop, I had to think long and hard about what these emblems were, what they meant to me and to the U.S., and what their significance would be for the future. I studied the founders, founding documents, and history of our American symbols in high school, college, law school, and as an advocate, but I had to renew that study in this newly developing post-9/11 context. Certainly, there is much history and many aspects of the flag, the anthem, and the founding documents that are difficult on various issues and in various eras. And many of these symbols and documents may be tainted by that history. But we are to learn from history, and not relive it. And we can apply lessons of history to today, but we cannot revise history to comport to current context. I concluded that the symbols that we reference in our country are just that – symbols. And as symbols, they are representative of our countries ideals – what we strive for. I realize now, what I realized in Canada as a child – that the flag, anthem, and Constitution were meant to signify what America could be and not just what it was.
Now, 15 years after 9/11, the flag and the anthem that were so prevalent and the Constitution that was so supported at that time, are now reviewed, questioned, and discredited by various individuals and groups. I think it is healthy for us as a nation to not blindly accept our symbols, our values, or our framework, and review can be good for us as a country. But discrediting these elements of America based on limited or isolated understanding of the history, representations, or ideals is problematic. The flag, anthem, and Constitution are not to be worshipped, but they are to be respected as representations of our American democracy and our developing ideals. So, I continue to honor the flag, the anthem, the Constitution for a number of reasons and from a number of perspectives:
As a Christian, I am instructed by the Bible to submit to the authorities and pray for leaders. This “submission” is not one of subjugation but rather of respect, recognizing that God has ordained the institutions and the leaders. We are not called to worship or revere the state, but we are called to give it value. We are not called to accept injustices at the hands of the state or others, but we are called on to pray for our state, our leaders, and each other, and with no qualifier based on political, religious, gender, or racial status. That does not mean we create a rabid, nationalistic allegiance to government or symbols of states. But it does mean that we respect the representations of the authorities and more so of the broader significance of those symbols – in this case the ideals of American democracy – since we are part of it. We don’t acknowledge these symbols because we have to, but because we want to honor the broader import of what and who they stand for, particularly the many who sacrificed to protect those ideals.
As an immigrant, I may reflect a different experience and relationship to the US than those that have been born and raised here. My family chose to come to America and chose to become American citizens. That is neither a light nor simple decision. When we became Americans when I was 15, my father and mother learned and were tested on the history and elements of this country, and took an oath to support that. Born citizens rarely engage in that much thought and intentionality about this country. My parents were Christians and intelligent people. And they made an intelligent and Biblically based decision to come to America, become Americans and uphold the laws and ideals of this country. I have benefitted from their decision, and I will continue to uphold those laws and ideals to both honor them and this country.
As an international human rights advocate, I have worked on a range of global issues related to various countries. I support what is distinctive and important about the U.S. compared and contrasted with many other regions. America is not perfect and has many issues, but when we see and experience the world around us, we also learn to more fully appreciate the country we have. For all the amazing locations and experiences in Europe, Asia, Africa, South America, etc, there is not a country in the world that can compare to the U.S. politically, socially, or economically as a whole. While the struggles that we have in the U.S. are significant, they are not nearly on the scale or reach of what we see in other places today. And, with our Constitution, we have a framework to address these struggles – and are free to do so.
As a lawyer, I have appreciated the strength of the U.S. Constitution and our legal and political system. The laws and processes, particularly in criminal justice system and political process, have flaws, and mostly because people have flaws. But overall the U.S. system is still fair and open in many ways, and especially in comparison to other countries. The human and civil rights concerns we have in this system are important but limited in scope and can be improved, in contrast to the broader concerns in other regions. While each individual and each situation matters in America, the concept of scale and the ability to address and improve is important for how we evaluate America and its effectiveness as a legal and political system.
As a college professor, I had to first learn in order to teach. I learned that our Constitution, our American history and Christian heritage, and the related import of the events and processes that created the U.S., did not happen accidentally or quickly, but rather developed over time and with tremendous sacrifice. And the more I learn, the more I am convinced that all that the U.S. has to offer needs to be cherished, protected, and improved not just for our generations but for those that follow.
As a military spouse, I have seen firsthand the sacrifice of military service people and their families. No matter who you are in America, you are defended by these people, even if you don’t support them or America. While service exists in many forms in the U.S., those that have not experienced the unique situation and challenges of our military do not understand how serious the significance of the flag, anthem, and Constitution are to them. These emblems represent the country and the people that motivate military people to endure hardships for the sake of fellow Americans, even when those Americans cannot imagine, experience, or understand those experiences.
Currently, among segments in our country, there is a mindset that patriotism doesn’t matter, that these symbols are irrelevant or represent the worst of our history. In America, we have the freedom of conscience. And we can accept and allow that some may not support the flag, the anthem, and the Constitution for various reasons, some legitimate and some not. But the right to believe differently does not take away the value of these same symbols and ideals. Contrary to what some may think, patriotism can be a good thing. But patriotism must be distinguished from nationalism. Patriotism is focused on the appreciation of country – while recognizing its flaws. Nationalism is focused on the supremacy of country – without recognition of its flaws. Patriotism creates a relationship. Nationalism creates an obligation. We appreciate this country, because we can, not because we are forced to do so.
September 11 taught me and continues to teach me important lessons about America and Americans. America is about representative democracy, human ideals, political freedoms, and personal opportunity. Americans work diligently to support one another and against those who try to tear down this country or what it stands for. But America must protect vulnerable populations and constantly work to improve our system, laws, and processes to achieve our ideals. The inspired resiliency of America after September 11 reminds me of why my family came to America and how my father’s dream, and those of countless people before and since, became a reality.