“But please don’t cry, dry your eyes, never let up
Forgive but don’t forget, girl keep your head up” ~ Tupac Shakur.
Around the time that Florence Nightingale was charged with leading a team of 34 nurses to work in a Military hospital in the Crimea, another nurse (or as she was also called, a ‘Doctress’) approached the British Government and requested to also be sent as an army nurse to the Crimea. Mary Seacole was as different from Florence Nightingale as chalk from cheese. She was Jamaican (‘of mixed blood’ as they would say), trained in the arts of herbal medicine by her mother, and a woman of considerable courage and spirit. She had previously traveled around the Caribbean and Central America, learning as much as she could, combining both traditional and European medicine.
When the British Government turned her down (they had already committed to Florence and her band of nurses), Mary paid her own passage out to the Crimea (we are talking about traveling from the UK to Turkey in the 19th Century – no cheap flights in those days!). Again in contrast to Florence with her aristocratic upbringing, her discipline and rules, Mary Seacole was a colorful woman, one who did not stay at a hospital to nurse the wounded, she could be seen at the frontlines, bandana head tie flashing in the distance as she nursed the wounded where they lay. A typical Jamaican go-getter (hustler?) she rented a house and set it up as housing for the officers, providing (no doubt tasty) cooked foods and libations. Like the jokes always used to say, typical Jamaican, she had two jobs, nurse by day, hostess by night.
I love the thought of those two strong women; one dour and serious, pale face contrasting with dark dress, the lasting image of the lady with the lamp pacing the wards at night; the other bright and colorful, flash of color on a battlefield, joking and entertaining at night. Both undaunted by society’s expectations of women. Both were well traveled, had left the confines of their homes to dare to play on the world stage.
The other day I heard an interview, an author who has written about migration from the perspective of a family who originated in the slums of Manila. He spoke of their drive, their determination, their courage to move out even if it meant leaving the familiarity and support of home to get ahead. But the fact that shocked me the most was when he said that globally, remittances sent home by migrants were three times the amount of the foreign aid budgets of the world combined. That is mind-boggling. In Bangladesh, the amount of money sent home by those who have migrated is $15billion, the country’s second largest source of revenue.
For the most part those who migrate are traveling in search of something better, looking for a way to provide for their family. And what they bring with them is this yearning, this drive and determination to take advantage of every opportunity provided. They also bring survival skills (a must have if you are to blend in to the new environment) and innovation, a talent for finding solutions to seemingly impossible problems.
It is heartening to read of the success stories of many immigrants to this country. They embrace the values of the US while holding firm to their traditions wherever possible. The children of course spend their teenage years trying to disappear into the landscape, being more American than their peers. But once those kids start their own families, all of a sudden they are longing for the ackee and saltfish of their childhood (the same food they used to call ‘yucky’!). The same children who adopted American accents so quickly will be sporting ‘Ja-fake-an’ accents in a heartbeat, showing respect to their parents’ roots.
A healthy blended society acknowledges the strength that diversity brings, and welcomes those who move here knowing that fresh ideas and determination can only work for the good of the whole. But more than that, those who have forgotten how their families arrived here should respect the courage and strength that it takes to leave that which you know. Some immigrants are leaving treacherous conditions and are running for their lives. Others may be leaving one field of expertise and having to start afresh in a whole new career. Yesterday I heard the story of a woman who at age 62 and with poor grasp of the English language was determined to go to college and get a degree. She went from working overnight in a factory to being the head of HR today.
The story of the modern USA is not just about immigrants. This month has seen the celebration of the day 400 years ago that the first enslaved Africans arrived on the shores of Virginia. The contribution of the Africans to the life and soul of this country has never been fully appreciated, nor has the oppression and continued injustice ever been properly addressed. There are so many wrongs to right, this country needs a reboot!
This Friday morning I want to acknowledge the life of the migrant, that individual who fights the odds to get ahead; who risks losing all to start anew; who as soon as they start earning a little money turn around and send cash home to those left behind. Although Tupac’s words were sung to a struggling young girl, they could as easily be sung to the population of migrants worldwide, who continue to battle against the odds: ‘Keep your head up’; be proud of your contribution to society and the wellbeing of your family. And hopefully, as Nina Simone croons in the background, ‘Things are gonna get easier’.
Have a wonderful weekend, Family!