Letter to America, by Sean Hill

Letter to America

By Sean Hill

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Dear America,

I’d meant to send a postcard from the road last summer, in early June, before Charlottesville and tiki torches were in the news. I flew my 69-year-old father up to Fairbanks to help with my small family’s move to Georgia, my home state. Dad would make the drive with me and my dog to Seattle, where I’d exchange him at the airport for my young son and his mother, who would continue the drive south. It’s a long drive—over ten hours a day for four days. You were with me and Dad the whole way, America, in spirit when not in body for that three-and-a-half-day stretch down through Canada.

My father summed up that gorgeous drive in a call with a friend once we’d re-emerged into coverage after a couple of days of network silence: “I ain’t seen nothing but snow-capped mountains and forests for three days!” We still had another day or so of driving to actually cross the border and get back to you. All that way across first Alaska and then Canada—over 2,000 miles. Dad brought a sense of the world borne out of his relationship with you. His experience of what felt to him like the middle-of-nowhere was shaped by seven decades of living with you—our home.

Between Fairbanks and our first day’s destination—Whitehorse, in Yukon Territory—we saw mountains and braided rivers and possibly a black bear and definitely grizzly bears and small lakes and a vast one and elk and more mountains. The next day while driving through British Columbia, I asked my dad a question I’d been curious about. He and I don’t spend that much time together these days, and this felt like a once-in-our-lifetimes trip. A week of just us round-the-clock. I silenced the podcast about design and technology I’d subjected him to and asked what I hoped would be an open question that would lead to stories and conversation: “What was the great shift in society that happened in your lifetime that you can’t help but think about sometimes? You know, what was the thing that changed your world?”

My dad’s considered answer was: “Cell phones, the telephone, and radio and television—the things that let people communicate over great distances and keep in touch. We talked to your mother this morning. The internet. People can do business long-distance. Those are the things that changed the world.”

Communication technology. I was surprised. I’d expected him to say desegregation. I told him as much because that’s what I wanted to hear about. America, my father graduated from a legally segregated high school in the mid 1960s. The schools in my hometown of Milledgeville, Georgia, weren’t desegregated until the 1970-71 school year, which was about the time that “with all deliberate speed” from the 1955 Brown II decision worked to enact desegregation and end the era of legally sanctioned “separate but equal” in many places.

“Your mother would drink out of ‘WHITES ONLY’ water fountains out of defiance as much as a political stance; that’s your mother,” he said. He went on, “I just thought those were the rules and accepted them. I didn’t really think about it.”

I found it fascinating that as a young man my dad didn’t seriously question being a less-than-equal citizen in a segregated society. You see, America, I’ve always thought of my father as civic-minded. He’s been in leadership roles in civic organizations and later in the church my entire life—the perfect outlets for his extroverted nature, his need to help others, and his political awareness. But he told me his political awareness didn’t arise till after high school, when he joined friends marching in our hometown to effect change. Only then did he understand how wrong things were and that they could be changed; he could help change society. We continued to talk on down the road.

For our second night, I’d booked us a room at the Lake Tatogga Resort. Tired after a long drive, but with plenty of light left in the high-latitude summer day, we pulled into the roadside resort’s gravel parking lot and found the “historic” log restaurant and office closed for the evening. The sign on the door said to find the manager in number 2, but at the row of rustic cabins in clear view number 2 was vacant. I returned to the sign on the restaurant door. There were a couple of middle-aged white guys dressed in road-trip casual, wearing jeans like us, strolling by through the parking lot. They glanced at me and my father but didn’t offer any guidance. Dad took their quiet glance for the side-eye of “a couple of good ol’ boys.”

When eventually we found the manager, Dad thought the flustered big guy in his late 20s or early 30s (who surely wouldn’t have been far from his glory days playing high school or college football back home) was a redneck trying to give us trouble at the end of a long day of driving. I thought the burly white Canadian was only trying to stay on his wife’s good side—making a show of making sure I understood they’d just recently had a guest with a little dog that messed up the room. He was certain our dog, 60 pounds of what I call “all-American mixed breed,” would be fine, but “you know how some people make it hard for everyone else…”

When the manager explained that there were no keys and that we should leave our door unlocked until we turned in for the night so as not to lock ourselves out, saying, “It’s just us and the bears,” I heard fact. Dad heard threat.

The next morning, things changed a little. At breakfast, Dad noted that the two men he’d thought were a couple of good ol’ boys were foreign. Turns out they were German tourists; I’d had a pleasant chat with them while taking the dog on her morning walk. And the resort manager shared with me that he’d found out that one of his ancestors a few generations back was Black and from Louisiana, and he wanted to visit one day. Then he warned us to keep watch for black bears the way folks in Georgia will tell you to look out for deer. Indeed, one crossed right in front of us just down the road.

On our last day in Canada, coming out of the mountains and down to both sea level and Seattle, on the phone with a friend who’d called from home, my father expressed how impressed he was with my insouciant driving: “He driving like it ain’t nothing. All these mountains. Seem like we been going downhill for over an hour, and we still going down.” He said, “Mountain on one side and a river on the other way down below, and if you went off over there they wouldn’t know how to get you back.” I drove while he carried on his conversation, proud that I’d impressed my father.

After he got off the phone we chatted a little about road trips. I love them; I’ve crisscrossed the country more times than a few. Maine’s your only state I haven’t visited, and I’ve been to six of Canada’s 13 provinces and territories. This was my second time making this drive from Fairbanks and my third time on this stretch of highway. After a while, he got quiet among those dwarfing mountains, the deep canyon with the rushing river just the other side of the guardrail. I could see my father’s face go still, and then its small gestures didn’t fit what was happening outside or inside the car. I asked what was on his mind.

“I’m sitting here thinking about my deck and my little koi pond in my small backyard in my little corner of the world,” he said. I heard homesickness and something else—the sound of a rising realization. After a moment, he said, “The world is large.” In that moment, I was impressed with my dad. 

That evening we got across the border and back home to you. Now, I’ve had problems at borders before. I’ve had trunk searches on occasion, my residency questioned once, been asked inside the station to answer questions, and a full-on search of my car, its contents, and my laptop. I’ve thought my color—Suspect Brown, a shade on most law enforcement’s color profile chart—was quite possibly the reason for their attention. So with my dog and my dad I was a little nervous but hopeful that things would go smoothly. My dad was cleared to go through, but the border patrol agent raised an eyebrow at me and my story—a professor with his family dog and dad moving from Alaska back to his home state of Georgia. After some questions to make sure I wasn’t someone else, he asked if I’d had trouble at border crossings before. I shared some points of similarity with someone apparently on the wrong side of the law. The agent directed me inside to get our records disentangled. His desire to help me made me hopeful.

Inside I turned over my passport and paperwork. One of the agents inside stepped away with my passport for a few minutes. He came back and asked more questions, including whether I had any tattoos. I don’t. He requested that I show him my right arm, so I removed the long-sleeved shirt I was wearing over my t-shirt. He then scanned my passport. Looking at a screen as the data processed he said sternly, “If alarms go off and lights start flashing, you’re in trouble.” I laughed. He didn’t. I nervously asked if that was a joke. No lights or alarms. He looked up, smiled, and said, “Yes.” He handed back my passport and my father and I continued on across the border—returned to you in body.

America, you are the basis of our perspectives; our relationships with you shape and shade the lens through which we look at everything. But our perspectives can shift, and I saw my dad’s experience and understanding that the world is big as hopeful.

That was June. Then came July, and we finally arrived in our new home in Georgia where we were busy trying to settle in. We’d moved to a small university town below the gnat line—a little farther south than my hometown. It was a slightly different ecosystem, but more familiar than any I’d lived in since leaving Georgia 17 years ago, when I was 27. The flora and fauna sent me into quiet transports of happiness—the smells, sounds, and light of my youth. The human ecosystem seemed a bit different to me than the South I’d grown up in, as my father’s South was different from mine. Interracial couples with biracial children (i.e., my family) don’t cause universal and open consternation the way they would have in the 1980s or even the raised eyebrows of the 90s. But it is still the South, and trying to understand it I noticed little things. For example, one of the options for specialty license plates offered by the state has a Confederate flag framed by “Sons of Confederate Veterans 1896.” I’m still working through how to see these tags and the people who drive cars bearing them.

And then August came, and the weekend before classes began the latest violence that seems to define you more and more took place in Charlottesville. The Unite the Right rally brought together various groups identifying as White Nationalists, White Supremacists, and Neo-Nazis around the cause of saving a statue of Robert E. Lee. Friday evening they held a tiki torch-lit march, chanting, “You will not replace us.” On Saturday, one of their numbers drove a car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing a young woman and injuring 19 others.

I have a hard time not seeing these men (some of them “very fine people,” according to President Trump) as anything but what they proclaim to be—and what their actions show them to be. They’ve framed their protestations around a fear of obsolescence as they circle around a statue of a man who fought 150 years ago for a confederacy of states in a war that, according to Georgia’s declaration of secession, revolved around “the subject of African slavery”—the enslavement of my ancestors. The statue was erected in 1924, almost 60 years after the end of the war. Now, another 90 years later, these men drew demarcating lines of identity. They made their world smaller. They chose to identify with a statue of Robert E. Lee. These men who find their community with the Klan, Citizens’ Councils of America, and Council of Conservative Citizens more than they do with me took what most might have thought of as a nostalgic tropical throwback and made it topical. They co-opted the tiki torch. Did they make the little bamboo patio torch of summer parties into their great grandfather’s, grandfather’s, or even father’s torches? How much room is there for doubt that they made it a threat?

The thing is, America, today there’s talk of “social media echo chambers” and “confirmation bias,” and I get that and am susceptible to those things, too. We have all this information and communication technology that has given more people than ever a platform from which to communicate and share ideas widely (my dad was right). And all we seem to do is to use it to become more entrenched in our little corners. From those little corners of you—and of the world—we may think, owing to our experience as a less-than-equal citizen in a segregated society where our neighbors across the color line (if they didn’t terrorize us and those who looked like us) rest on the power structure created from our less-than status, that most (not all, but any we’re likely to encounter) white men are either rednecks or good ol’ boys. Or we may think, owing to our limited experience across the color line or based on what we’ve learned from the movies and television or word of mouth, that, no matter their age, most (not all, but any we’re likely to encounter) Black males are threatening thugs or simply less-than-equal people.

As I write this I’m reminded that my father couldn’t see the men we encountered on our trip for who they were, at first. Our trip reminded me that I should always try to see individuals for who they are and be ready to meet them accordingly.




Sean HillSean Hill is the author of Dangerous Goods and Blood Ties & Brown Liquor. His poems have appeared in Callaloo, Harvard Review, The Oxford American, Poetry, Tin House, and numerous other journals, and in several anthologies including Black Nature and Villanelles. More information, as well as poems, can be found at his website: www.seanhillpoetry.com.

Header photograph of highway among evergreens by Pexels, courtesy Pixabay. Photo of Sean Hill by Tia Tidwell.




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