This past summer, the summer before my senior year of college, I interned in Washington, DC at one of the most prestigious, conservative non-profits in America. In a social bubble where your status was defined by how much you knew about what makes America great, I was a star. You see, I know a lot about America and what makes it so great: a whole lot. In fact, for the past few years, I’ve been a diligent scholar at one of the nation’s premier undergraduate political science and history programs. Ask me about it sometime. I’ll talk your ear off.
In June, I realized that Independence Day would give me a four-day weekend, so on Wednesday night I left 20002 and came home to 44256. Later that weekend, a family from Uganda – Allan, his wife Samie, and their newborn son – arrived at our house to begin a new life in America. In 2005, my father, an entrepreneur and small business owner from Medina, Ohio, met Allan, a talented and young web developer from Uganda, and began partnering with his business. In early 2013, through the United States Diversity Program, Allan was granted permanent residency in America and made the long trip to work with my father.
On Saturday night, July 6, Allan told stories of life in Uganda to my family in the living room. Samie was putting their child to sleep in the next room, so we turned off the lights to help her quiet the baby. In the dark, Allan, a towering 6’3,” sat on the leather couch with his hands folded in his lap and told tales of human beings not knowing where their next meal was coming from; of corrupt governments, military coups, and wars; of scores of soldiers raiding villages and dragging children away from their mothers in the middle of the night. With a heavy accent, he told us how thankful he was to escape with his family and how excited he was to start a new life in a new place, where he would have the opportunity to provide a better life for his wife and child.
As he spoke, we could hear fireworks, leftover from the 4th of July, exploding in the distance. Every now and then we could see bright colors of red and blue above the tree line, cascading to the earth below. America was celebrating its independence. If we were in Uganda, those sounds might have meant terror and oppression.
When he finished, the fireworks had ceased and a deep silence came. Already past 11pm, he looked at us and we looked at him. My family and I were speechless. I remember sitting in the living room for what seemed like minutes in the quiet.
Breaking the silence, he asked us about life in America and what made it good. Startled by his question, I did not know how to respond. None of the answers that raced through my head that night seemed appropriate.
What do you tell a man who has gone through so much? How can you explain in simple terms the uniqueness of America? Where do you begin? Do you describe what a constitutional republic is, or regurgitate what Jefferson and Lincoln had to say about equality, or tout the benefits of property rights, due process, and trial by jury? If these philosophical reasons are too complex, should we extol the tangible benefits of a charmed life in rural Ohio in the 21st century: electricity that stays on past 10:00pm, hot showers, fast food, car seats for newborns, and Starbucks coffee? America is the land I was born in and grew up in, of course, but how does belonging to a country make it all that special? Of all the ideas racing through my head, nothing reached the heart of the matter.
Then, a simple answer came to me. I recalled Abraham Lincoln’s eulogy for Henry Clay – a speech that he gave on July 6, 1852, 161 years earlier to the day of my family’s conversation with Allan, I later realized. Lincoln says of Clay: “He loved his country partly because it was his own country, but mostly because it was a free country; and he burned with a zeal for its advancement, prosperity, and glory, because he saw in such the advancement, prosperity, and glory of human liberty.”
I told Allan that we love America not just because it is our own but because it is good. “Yes,” Allan said calmly. “That makes all the difference.”
I went on to explain to him how America is uniquely capable of good because it is founded – not on a bloodline or on a religious sect or on a location or on who is in power – but on an idea, a creed: “that all men are created equal,” which means that no one can rule over you without your consent, that every person has a moral claim to freedom simply by virtue of being human, and that a just government’s end is securing the natural rights of its citizens.
As I was falling asleep that night, patting myself on the back for answering Allan’s question so wonderfully, excited to tell my professors and bosses about my wisdom, I realized that everything I said, Allan already knew. I had merely spoken what was already on his heart. I had been humbled by a humble man from Uganda who knew more about what makes America great than I did and, though he had only been within her borders for 24 hours, loved it more than I did.
Allan and Samie, months before finding out that they could come to America, brought forth a son. In Luganda, the most spoken local dialect in Uganda, his name is Dembe, but Allan had said that he always called his first born by his English name: Freedom. Allan had named him this “because we believed that his birth would signify the birth of the freedom that we hoped for.”
America is now his family’s country, but, though I have not asked him, I do not think that is why Allan loves it. If I had to guess, I’d say that he loves it because it is a free country. And as a 30-year-old Ugandan taught me, “That makes all the difference.”
Joseph Griffith is a senior from Medina, Ohio majoring in Political Science and History.