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On Discovering America

by Pearl S. Buck


June 1937

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Yes, in our diversity is our safety. It is not wise to prophesy, but I believe ours is the only safe country in the world today, because we cannot be organized and regimented into any simple opposing forces. There are capitalists among laborers and there are Socialists and Communists among millionaires and their sons, and our president may be an aristocrat by birth or a foundling, depending on what he is and how we like him. It is true I hear rumors of a dictator to come, four or eight years from now, but I hear, too, the familiar growl and rumble of stubborn protest which makes me feel a dictator would find it very hard going in America. We will never have a vast bloody revolution as Russia and Germany have had because we wouldn't tolerate any one group having so much power as to make such fools of the rest of us. We may persist in our own kind of lawlessness—in racketeering and private murders, but these won't get out of hand and become national or international, because we will never be able to agree together on anything on such a scale. We are not at all a moral people nor even at all religious except in small sectarian ways.

But we give people a better chance than any other country does because we believe in having a good chance ourselves. We do not really love freedom so much as we pretend—plenty of people would be glad to have all who disagree with them done away with, except it would then be too lonely to live at all. Besides, they know somebody feels that way about them, so it's better to keep still and go on about one's own business. And the result of all this is peace. And another result is opportunity—opportunity for some of us to work, for some of us to strike, for some of us to succeed, for some of us to fail and go on relief.

I believe, then, in exactly the sort of America we have now, except I wish we could see that what we have is good and inevitable, and so cease to hate each other. Our country is based upon diversity of race and upon freedom of belief, and this is our chief claim to being unique and great.

I believe, too, in keeping clear and wide the source of our national strength, immigration. This is not at all to say that we are to allow anybody to come into America. We who are here do have the right to say who shall come into our nation. At the same time I believe we have not yet learned how to secure these values of immigration to our nation, because we have not yet the rational basis for quota immigration. It is not racial or national, it is not what proportion of Anglo-Saxons should we maintain. What rational man says,"l will allow so many Germans, so many Czechs, so many Italians, so many English, and no Orientals to enter my house?" Only a stupid and prejudiced mind could be so irrational. The wise man will open his doors wide to the intelligent and to the good, whatever their race and nation, and he will close his doors to the criminal and the feebleminded. I believe the only tests which should be applied to those wanting to become Americans are a test for intelligence and a test for inherent character. Brains and a sense of right and wrong should be the passport to America. I am glad for every restless eager heart and ambitious mind that looks Americaward. I have no patience with those who would crouch like greedy beasts, holding fast to more than they eat, lest others more needy get it. The future of America depends on immigration—it must, or we who are here will grow stagnant with too little life of our own.

For we are isolated in a fashion which no other nation knows. Other nations are subject to a constant interchange ot language, thought and people between their close boundaries, but we are not. The two great oceans hem us in with silence, and north and south we have neighbors, good, but not enough beyond us for sufficient stimulation. We need new life for centuries to come, perhaps forever. I should like, as an American, to think of America as forever the land to which the restless and the bold, the brilliant and the good, out of every people, could come and make their home. I am not fearful of such people starving or starving others by their presence, for they create jobs.

I REALlZE THAT IN THIS THINKING ABOUT AMERICA I HAVE maintained to an exasperating degree the long view to which my Chinese-trained eyes are accustomed. But I still believe it is the only view for rational life, and when we try to settle national problems for the day, we are robbing the nation which is to be, and which is just as much America as the America we have now. It is as absurd as refusing to see the man in the child, and shaping his education not on what he should be as a man, but upon his evanescent childish needs. It is our weakness as Americans that we cannot see ourselves in the largeness of time. Perhaps it is a thing the immigrants can teach us, who come from old countries. At least let them know, these immigrants, what our fault is.

When they meet with hostile looks and surly voices of unwelcome upon these shores of their home, when their children hear ugly names and taunts in schools, let them know that this is not America speaking—that America is more than these, more than any of us who are alive at this little moment. We all have a right here, for America from the very first has had her beginning in all peoples, and her strength is drawn from all peoples and her future depends on us all. We must teach our children, native-born and foreign-born alike, that there is no final America yet—that they are making America, too, by what they themselves are—regardless of what others are. We must teach the foreignborn to laugh when silly children cry, "You're wops—you're heinies—you're sheenies; we're Americans." The truth is, Americans are all something else, too, and are going to be for a long, long time, and the truest American knows it.


Kay Davis, University of Virginia, © 2001-2003