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Rose-Anne Clermont


Claudine couldn’t honestly say if she’d ever felt patriotic. The Pledge of Allegiance had simply been a school ritual she’d followed, unconsciously, because her parents had taught her to be obedient. She’d pretended to sing God Bless America along with the rest of her middle school choir-- even though she couldn’t hold a tune to save her life--by mouthing the text she’d somehow memorized. But despite her efforts at being an American kid, her father’s variation on the classic, God Bless Ameri-ca-ca, would invariably follow on the car ride home.

That her father hated the country, or as he said "didn’t hate, but was just critical of", which gave him refuge, was not something Claudine thought of as contradictory, at first, but just her family’s version of reality. That her parents moved to the whitest suburb they could find so their black kids wouldn’t become black Americans, was just a part of being in the family that was hers. That her parents were medical doctors yet still ate ground corn meal, rice and beans, cassava -- peasant food -- was as normal to Claudine as what she later figured meatloaf meant to Americans.

Americans; those strange creatures who lived on the other side of their door. Their superficial kindness, her father had warned. Their ignorance, her father lamented. Their greed, her father scolded. Americans couldn’t be trusted. But America, Claudine couldn’t deny, in her spacious bedroom, in her designer clothes and on her family vacations to Europe, appeared to have given them everything they’d had. So as years went by and Claudine grew older, her family’s contradictions would eventually become harder to ignore. Even though Claudine’s passport boasted American nationality, her father told her "You’re acting just like an American!" whenever he was upset with her. If she’d said something stupid, like the capital of Russia was St. Petersburg or that the Emancipation Proclamation was signed in 1812, he muttered under his breath, "That’s what I get for raising kids here."

But when he wasn’t complaining about America’s tendency to breed ignorance, its decadence or paradoxes, her father’s other favorite hobby was discussing the fate of his homeland with other Haitians from his medical school class. They’d all left in the late sixties with the intention of eventually returning to the troubled island; of rebuilding a middle class to push the Duvaliers out. Over twenty years later and fattened by enriched foods, they all still believed they knew what was best for their country.

"What we need," Claudine’s father said in a hushed tone in a corner of a party hosted by Dr. Baptiste, "is a Fidel Castro."

"Mon cher," Dr. Baptiste bellowed in his loud Creole, "you could never find a Haitian who gives two craps about the Haitian people the way Castro does about his people."

"That’s BS," piped in Dr. Joseph, a gynecologist with an afro that had long gone out of style and wouldn’t be revived for at least another 10 years. "Castro is a propagandistic liar like all of the hypocrites who call themselves socialists. Uh uh, no, no mes amis, the real socialists are the Scandinavians!" At that, the others laughed at Dr. Joseph through their expanding guts, holding dearly onto their Barbancourt rum. Dr. Baptiste teased him, "Yeah, but who wants to live in a place where you can only treat hypothermia?" The physicians roared again in their corner, oblivious to the eye rolls coming from their wives, who flitted around an overly-decorated living room with furniture intended for a villa and not a suburban Westchester house. The wives’ furs were stuffed in a closet also not meant for mink, sable or leopard, rather practical nylons and stretch materials that Claudine’s American friends’ mothers wore.

The women eyed each other’s shoes and dresses that they’d spotted at Nordstrom or Saks and told each other how great they looked. "Five hundred dollars!" Claudine’s mother said about Madame Jean’s gown once they got into the car. "And that was just for the top!" Claudine’s father ignored his wife, as she had long been "corrupted" by American commercialism and steered his Volvo past the line of Mercedes that were parked outside of the house. "Look at all these pretentious bastards," he said, "they used to get around on their bare feet and now all they know is Mercedes, Mercedes, Mercedes. Oh, how many Duvaliers are hidden in us, mon Dieu!" The Volvo coughed down the street as it anticipated the hill that would take them to their own white suburban community.

Claudine had only been thirteen at the time, but understood that people who spoke admirably about socialism and drove Mercedes were a paradox. She also knew that other people didn’t live like her family, not even some white people. She could see more than just a family in a ripped-up Plymouth when they’d stopped at a traffic light. She could guess which exit they’d take, where the man behind the wheel had just come from; his face speckled with paint and worry. Disparity was something that Claudine picked up on fast, before she’d even visited Haiti. And she knew it was what bothered her father most about America. Not just the disparity amongst the classes within the states, but in countries with which America had tampered and subsequently screwed; countries whose livelihood and sovereignty were stepped on by American foot soldiers and whose revenge would make Americans finally start to cherish the security they’d long taken for granted and felt entitled to have.

Five years later, Claudine’s father would die in that same car, on a highway that advertised boat tours along the Atlantic. "See America as the settlers did," the oversized billboard read. The advertisers had made the sign too large and caused the Polish truck driver, dreaming about an American shore after a long week’s route, to careen into the socialist’s Volvo and send Claudine’s father to his American grave.

So when Claudine found herself in Germany on a prestigious scholarship years later, to study Political Science, she didn’t flinch the way the other Americans did when American politics were likened to barbarism, unilateralism, corruption, violence and injustice. She most often agreed with the criticism, to a certain point. After all, none of it was new. She’d heard it all before. Germans were shamelessly blunt about what they thought of America, but no more than her father had been. And as an intellectual, it was clear that it was her duty to nod and agree. And how could she dispute them when within the short amount of time she’d been there, America had scrapped civil rights for Arabs and Arab-looking people in the states, illegally held Afghans in Guantanamo Bay and was on the brink of starting a second war in Iraq? Even the youngest students had been armed with Michael Moore in their backpacks. So Claudine felt a natural dilemma in her gut when the time came to stand up and defend her country, like the other Americans, perhaps the real Americans.

"Germany will never regain international respect because of its passivity," Greg, the Republican Bostonian provoked in a late afternoon seminar in Berlin. The fall had afflicted the worst of its harm on the city for that season, and the trees looked blacker and more cynical than the crows that weighed down their branches.

"But American politicians seem to act without thinking, like in the Wild West," a German student protested. "American foreign policy has a short term memory, unlike Germany, which is still paying reparations for the Second World War."

"Yeah, well, apparently Germany didn’t learn enough," Greg raised his voice, taking the discussion personally, holding it to his chest like a heavy weight. His earnest New England freckles began to darken and sweat accentuated his arguments. "After the Holocaust, you’d think Germany would have been the first ones to go into Yugoslavia, but no. Who had to get rid of Milosevic? We did, the Americans! Just like we have to be the ones to get rid of Saddam Hussein--"

"I believe it was NATO that went into Yugoslavia," the German woman interrupted stiffly. She looked at Greg with a distrusting slant of her head, as if he had just pulled a sucker punch.

"Yeah, but who was it led by, huh? Yugoslavia was not our problem, but the war never would have ended if we hadn’t preempted force." There it was, the distinction between Greg and his German opponent; that we. The private club. The only students in Claudine’s international program who referred to the personal pronoun in academic discussions were the Americans. The ownership, the inherent pride even when policy was unanimously criticized. The we that Claudine censored herself from using, for a time.

She first found herself adopting the pronoun when she’d learned that a plane crashed into the World Trade Center. An Italian classmate had called Claudine in the late afternoon to tell her to turn on the television. Claudine’s brain said we when she thought back to the day her father took her to the top of the World Trade Center as a little girl. It had been a crisp but sunny Manhattan day in September that left no corner from the twin tower restaurant’s view unexposed: a corner littered by Polish kebab stands and Middle Eastern falafel (before Americans feared every Arab not in handcuffs), the tail end of a Sari caught in the wind before the woman turned the corner, a legless veteran crossing the street in a wheelchair topped with an American flag, a part of City Hall, which stood over a slave burial ground, shiny black limousines that sped across intersections and a view of the other tall buildings that would be left standing after the planes had reached their targets years later. Had her father been alive, Claudine wondered whether or not he would have remembered that as being an American excursion, sitting atop the best of what capitalism had to offer, atop a symbol that would be destroyed with such vehemence?

But as connected as Claudine felt to those burning towers and the Americans who were in them, she still couldn’t define patriotism when her German classmates so earnestly wanted to know; inquiring about the presence of American flags everywhere before the rubble had even cleared. They wanted to know if patriotism was the American form of resistance. Or was it just fear that propelled it? They wanted to know why Americans might feel safer if they started a war in Iraq. Hadn’t they learned from Vietnam, they all asked?

Claudine could answer most things on an intellectual level; citing examples of Americans’ belief in their government, in being proactive, in doing the right thing. She was sometimes sneered at by Greg’s "bring it on; don’t fuck with the US of A," mentality and he called her everything but a traitor.

"Sometimes I can’t believe you even grew up in the states," he said one morning over coffee at Humboldt University’s canteen. Claudine hadn’t invited him to sit down, but he’d pulled out the empty chair across from her anyway.

"Because I don’t get upset every time someone criticizes American foreign policy?"

"I’m not saying America is perfect," he protested. Anyone studying Political Science has to look at our policy with a raised brow."

"So, then why do you get on me all the time for being anti-American?"

"I’m not saying you’re anti-American. I just can’t tell if you’re pro-American either."

"Oh man, Greg, you sound like Bush and that "with us or against us" bullshit. You can’t be an opportunist and be honest at the same time."

"Oh, so now I’m the opportunist? We’re in Europe and you conveniently agree with all the Europeans, who’s the opportunist here?" Claudine took a long gulp of her coffee and wished she’d never slept with Greg at the program’s start two years earlier. She’d been homesick (if a non-patriotic person could feel homesickness) and Greg had just been around. Having him was as easy as a buying a wurst would have been. But Claudine hadn’t wanted a wurst, she’d wanted something from home, something genuinely American, and there he’d been. It had only happened once and as soon as it was over, Claudine regretted it deeply.

"I just don’t know how you can come from a place like the states and not identify with it. I mean, it’s how we’re educated, how we’re raised. I don’t care where your parents are from." Claudine didn’t answer him. Fuck him; he had no idea how easy it would have been for her to be one generation more of an American. It would have been much easier to blindly follow a path laid out by homeland dogma. Being critical, in or outside of the country, was a burden in more ways than Claudine could have ever hoped for. Greg didn’t know how hot tears stung her skin when Congress sang God Bless America—the original version, without the extra ca. He would never know how much she’d missed her father, buried under a grassy knoll overlooking an artificial suburban duck pond where the ducks had to be brought in because they knew the pond was a fake and didn’t fly in on their own free will. Her father had been buried under an eternal paradox, stranger than the one he’d lived, and that saddened Claudine sometimes more than the fact that he was gone.

"You know," her father once said, out of nowhere, while solemnly spreading Jiffy peanut butter on a piece of cassava bread. "Familiarity breeds contempt." Her father had always been forthcoming with other people’s sayings if he thought it would make the right impression on his children. Years later, Claudine would read parts of speeches and manifestos and recognize them from her childhood.

"Isn’t that a bit paranoid?"

"You can never be too paranoid in America."

"So then why did you come here?" Claudine sighed, attempting to understand and maybe even challenge her father’s divided loyalties. He knew that he was confusing to his children, being critical of the country in which he chose to raise them. The Duvaliers had long been gone and the price on her father’s head had fled with Baby Doc a while ago. But besides not having returned like he said he would, Claudine’s father couldn’t reconcile what he’d had in Haiti with what he’d gained in America; what he should have stayed to do and what he’d thought he needed to prove. His regrets crippled him and his children were a constant, penetrating reminder that he had left something, a part of himself; a person his children would never meet.

His children, despite his efforts to teach them to look at their country with a critical eye, were Americans. They couldn’t be anything else. They would always understand Creole and crave their mother’s rice and beans. They would identify with their West Indian roots even before novels and memoirs about multiethnic childhoods sold like hotcakes. They wouldn’t only be Americans because they were born there, but they would be Americans because, no matter how they’d been raised, they would feel the tug of patriotism on their souls. They wouldn’t wear American flag pins or hang stars and stripes in their windows, but they would always feel a tinge of familiarity when they were far from America and would see a flag, waving atop an embassy or a consulate that offered some sort of security by its mere presence.

But the Polish truck driver, who smelled of roast beef, Cherry Coke and sweat and dreamt of sailing, would spare Claudine’s father from seeing his kids being their most American. He would miss the pro-American rhetoric his son would spew in support of his friends in the army who would be sent to Iraq. He wouldn’t have to see an American flag with every step he took and listen to incoherent speeches by a president elected the way some Haitian leaders had come to power. He would miss watching Claudine struggle with her nationality and her intellect. He wouldn’t have to see her suffer and regret even more, that he hadn’t gone back home.

"I came here for you," he answered his curious daughter, his smartest child. At this, Claudine crinkled her brow. For me? The answer had felt too grand, too pious, like Jesus being crucified for all people’s sins; another story Claudine had never quite understood as a child but didn’t question so as not to disrespect her mother’s Catholicism.

"For us? What do you mean for us?" Her father smiled in a way that fathers do when they are proud of their children’s questions, even if they don’t have the answers for them. "Because here," he said, "you can choose who you want to be."

Claudine looked at Greg, staring at her earnestly, with his wholesome American face, his unrelenting American pride and his sincere American freckles. Even though they would never agree, she would always find something familiar about Greg, regardless of whether she liked it or not. She would know him and recognize him in a way one patriot recognizes another. They sat in silence for another moment before a French woman from their program struggled with her tray and joked, "Can I join the American table?"

Rose-Anne Clermont studied fiction at Sarah Lawrence College and wrote about culture for The Village Voice, New York magazine and VIBE. After completing a graduate degree in journalism at Columbia University, a Fulbright scholarship brought her to Berlin in 1999 and back to writing fiction, where she’s recently finished a novel about three generations of an African-American family in Berlin.

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