In 1985 at the age of 20, when I boarded an Air-Jamaica flight bound for Atlanta, with $120 in my pocket, I remember thinking that was the first day of my life. I had chosen America as the place where I would forge and manifest my destiny.
Thirty-six years later, I can say, resoundingly, that not once has America ever failed me. I have faced my fair share of racial discrimination throughout the years. Yet, I have never regarded myself as a victim. The story of America is ongoing. It is comprised of my values, my vision, and my ethos. America is a canvass upon which I can write the script of my life. That script will be an emulative one for others to follow, a template on which to pin their aspirational identities.
People ask me what my formula for success as a black immigrant in this country is. I say, first, find out who you are at your core, and then create a way to transplant that core onto our magnificent republic. America exudes eternal hope, which keeps the soul young.
Second, race is irrelevant to my existence and incapable of shaping my destiny. I have always sought to conjoin my spirit to a nation of individuals who are on the road to self-actualization like me. I never allow my agency to be expropriated by others.
At my core, I am an aspirational being with a longing for a venturesome future. America is the nation that rewards you if you hold values that correspond to its fundamental principles.
It rewards hard work, resilience, honor, tenacity, a formidable will, and a disciplined mind that is initiative. I succeeded in America because I made a covenant with the country. I arrived not plotting how to take from the country but investing it with my irreplaceable moral character. In the name of the best within me, I try to use my virtues as the only legitimate currency to purchase a life that will be worthy of an American. I seek faith in life’s better possibilities.
We must create a philosophy for our lives; to affirm our existence and give us fuel in times of challenge and crisis. It is not the responsibility of society or the state to furnish us with such a philosophy. It must emerge from a hunger within. That philosophy must cultivate an ethos and craft a self-made soul. I believe that from the depths of a soul longing for a better life—a life of community and belonging—that we can begin a process of creating a new planetary humanistic ethic.
Since this is the philosophy I came armed with, it did not matter who tried to obstruct my path. My existence, buttressed by a life-affirming credo, has been an inoculant and an attractant. My life was never constructed as a form of resistance or rebellion. To construct yourself as a negative is to negate love and the freedom and potential that reside in you. My existence has always been conceived as an intersubjective conjoined with others. This philosophy is what I believe has allowed me to feel like I belong here, to confidently assert my right to co-create the moral meaning of this country.
America is the first country that incentivizes the individual to prioritize the future over the past, to eschew nostalgia in favor of hope and aspiration. Being an American has always meant steadfastly holding to life-enhancing moral qualities we develop in our characters. Those moral qualities inspire us to develop and sustain deep bonds with others.
We are not alienated from our human nature precisely because we hold moral values. Those moral values are anchored by our commitment to an American system that protects them, that says nothing, and no one can ever alienate us from our core. And nothing can pull us apart as Americans, despite our varied beliefs and expressions of the good life. We remain united in our commitment to our sacred first civilization in the New World.
We stay connected by a very American maxim that announces itself as follows: Your personal beliefs may differ from mine, your conception of the good life may be strange to me; however, so long as you respect my right to hold my life in my own name and do not violate my individual rights, and so long as you do not try to foist your values and your notion of the good on me, then I will defend and uphold your right to hold your personal values in your own name.
This is the benevolent American way. It is the closest manner in which we come to love each other as strangers. It is the only way that heterogeneous but common humanity can be forged in our great republic.
• Jason D. Hill is a professor of philosophy at DePaul University in Chicago. He is the author of several books, including We Have Overcome: An Immigrant’s Letter to the American People (Bombardier Books/Post Hill Press). His new forthcoming book is What Do White Americans Owe Black People: Racial Justice in the Age of Post Oppression. Follow him on Twitter @JasonDhill6.