“Illegal aliens have always been a problem in the United
States. Ask any Indian.” Robert Orben
As a university freshman in Ohio many years ago, I took an introductory class about the American Government. The class was taught by a middle-aged professor named Alexander Prisley. Dr. Prisley was liberal, energetic, and inspiring instructor. He presented the American government as an epitome of success by emphasizing what is generally called “American exceptionalism”. The term denotes the uniqueness of the United States as a country based on liberty, equality, and democratic ideals. The birth of the United States with its revolution, Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the extraordinary power structure of the country were topics that Dr. Prisley relished on with an unbridled passion and vigor. Then, in my junior year, I audited that same course with one of my favorite professors; Dr. Ron Hunt, who still teaches political theory and thought. He presented a portrait of America in which democracy was only for a few, and where inequality, disfranchisement, and denial of basic rights were once common-and still occurring.
It was a rude awakening, a realization that American exceptionalism was, in essence, what Howard Zinn, a leading political scientist/historian and the author of the seminal work, A People’s History of the United States, described it as myth and rather an “exercise of self-congratulation; we are the best, the strongest, the freest, the most democratic country” in the world. Former American president, George W. Bush, had exemplified that notion when he said, “We are the beacon of liberty and democracy in the world”. Zinn was critical of how America dealt with its Native Americans, blacks, and the “hysterical reaction” that the country responded toward Muslims after the 9-11 tragedy.
In reality, the United States is a country replete with contradictions, and that the two portraits by these professors might, oddly, represent what this country was, or perhaps, still is. Benjamin Franklin, a founding father of America, once opposed German immigration to the US because the Germans, he stated, would be unable to assimilate. But these inherent contradictions of the United States are what defines it. The country has the capacity to nurture its strengths and deal with its flaws openly without resorting to violence.
After all, the United States has the largest population of immigrants in the world. According to NationMaster.com, a website that collects government statistics; about 38.5 million immigrants live in the USA; with an estimated 898, 000 becoming naturalized each year. Since 1995, America has admitted over one million immigrants per year.
And it is this America, a tapestry of colors and cultures, that filmmaker Kim Snyder tries to capture in her documentary, Welcome to Shelbyville (watch a trailer of the documentary). It airs on PBS channel across the United States on May 24th, 2011 at 10:OO PM ET.
Welcome To Shelbyville
Director/Producer/Writer: Kim A. Snyder
Kim A. Snyder is an American filmmaker, a master story-teller, and co-founder of BeCause Foundation, which produces “socially-conscious documentaries”. If there is a common thread to her work it is this: empathy. “I have always been driven to tell stories that hit the emotional core of a given human-experience,” she once said. She openly admits that she uses her documentaries as a way to motivate people to get involved. “Not because they [people] have to, but because the emotional experience of the story compels them to.”
In the beginning, Shelbyville, Tennessee, was a white as cotton. Then the African-Americans came as slaves. Some folks in Shelbyville were not happy with the arrival of people who did not look like them. Some grumbled about the fear that the blacks would tinker with the White Community’s chemistry, whereas others discriminated against blacks and disenfranchised them. Shelbyville, after all, is in the neighbourhood of Pulaski, the birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan, which promoted white supremacy and opposed immigration. After many decades, residents of Shelbyville accepted and got used to the small number of African-Americans. They even elected a Black mayor.
Then the Mexicans came
Whites and blacks were uneasy about the Latinos. There were feelings of bemusement, discomfort, irritation, even hate. Some residents of Shelbyville described the newcomers as dirty and called them aliens. Bigots, indeed, can be stupefyingly simplistic. But after a while, Shelbyville got used to the Mexicans.
Then the Somalis slipped into town
Interestingly, it took two years and a series of stories in the local newspaper, for the Somalis to be noticed. The new refugees had serious barriers such as lack of English proficiency, educational background and familiarity with life in the US. They were mostly working at Tyson Foods chicken plant, and were not interacting, with the town’s residents. But when they did get noticed, all hell broke out. Somalis weren’t only black. They also were Muslims and many of the women dressed differently, covering their heads in scarves and their bodies in long flowing dresses.
In the midst of this quandary, a group of people, some white but mostly Mexicans took upon themselves to welcome the Somalis. The Latinos were once in the same position as the Somalis were. They encouraged Somalis to study English, organize themselves, speak up, and open up to the wider community. There were also some African-American women who stood by the Somalis as they negotiated their way in life in America’s South.
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