We Don't Deserve Their Devotion


A week ago today, it got personal.

Three years ago, I traveled to Ghana to learn about the West African roots of Orff Schulwerk, the philosophy that guides my practice as a music educator. The trip was a mind-expander: every day was filled with rich experiences that were new to me. Sights, sounds, smells, flavors, and most of all, people. Everywhere I went there were people speaking languages I did not know, or speaking my own language in accents I had rarely, if ever, heard. And music, so much music, permeating every aspect of this culture that was simultaneously more ancient than anything white American culture has to offer, was the beating heart of all the music I have ever lived, and has organically gone its own way for so long since it influenced American music that it is a whole other world unto itself. Guiding me, and forty other educators, through this experience--organizing every aspect of the trip, curating nightly performances, taking us on day trips to local festivals and ritual celebrations, protecting us from con artists, getting some of us medical attention, and above all giving us a frame of reference for this spectacular and hospitable place--was Kofi Gbolonyo.

Kofi is an incredible human being. Born and raised in the humble village of Dzodze, he grew up to become a dancer, musician, and educator, eventually traveling to the United States to earn graduate degrees in ethnomusicology. He is now on the faculty of the University of British Columbia, but that's just his home base. Annually, he travels tens of thousands of miles to share the wonders of Ghanaian culture with other music educators. He does it using Orff methods, sneakily drawing participants into learning to move, play, and sing the games and music he grew up with, until they discover, to their amazement, that they are now able to perform this complex music themselves. These are techniques I've used with children for years, techniques every Orff presenter uses with educators as well; and yet when I experience them through Kofi, I can't help feeling that he didn't just pick this stuff up (like every other adult in the room) from a workshop or course: it's as much a part of his culture as the music he's using it to teach.

You may have gathered from this description that I'm a little in awe of Dr. Kofi J.S. Gbolonyo. Of all the international musicians, educators, thinkers, and theologians I've encountered, Kofi is far and away the best example of a cultural ambassador, a man with a big, generous heart whose warmth is contagious.

And now comes the part that's hard to say.

A week ago, Kofi was in Portland to present a workshop for the Portland Orff Schulwerk Association, an organization of music educators of which I'm currently the president. I'd been eager to bring him here ever since that 2014 trip, knowing he had so much to offer from a perspective outside of anyone we'd had in my memory. He didn't disappoint: I could tell my fellow participants were having a wonderful time, that their world was getting bigger with every song, dance, or game he taught.

After the workshop I was over, I drove Kofi to dinner, then the airport. On the way, he talked about passing through the San Francisco airport on his way hear from Brazil, where he'd just been for a conference. Since San Francisco was his port of entry on this trip, he had to pass through customs before he could board his connecting flight to Portland. For the first time in all his many journeys to America, Customs and Border Protection agents treated him with suspicion, questioning him repeatedly about what he'd been doing in Brazil, where he was going, why his passport was so unusual (he travels so frequently that it takes three passport booklets, stapled together, to hold all his current visas). The agents were humorless, dogged, and hostile. This was not a welcome.

Kofi is not from any of the seven countries President Trump banned from entry into the US two weeks ago. The only African country on that list is Somalia, thousands of miles from Ghana--and, it should be noted, while Kofi is still a citizen of Ghana, his permanent address is Vancouver, BC. He is obviously African, in both appearance and accent. And that was probably enough to give the CBP agents an excuse to hold him for questioning and grill him like a suspect.

And this is just a taste of what hundreds of travelers, many of them refugees, have experienced since Trump issued his order.

I was horrified when I read about the order, furious when I learned how quickly CBP officials pounced on it and the liberties they began taking with travelers with even passing association with any of Trump's targeted nations. I haven't had many experiences with American customs agents, but they've never been anything I could call pleasant. Coming through customs last March, after a spring break trip to Victoria, the contrast with the Canadian officers was striking: they were humorless, fully armed, and suspicious of anything that struck them as out of place. And this was while their boss was still Barack Obama. The stories I've heard in the last two weeks (including Kofi's) make we wonder if xenophobia is a prerequisite for the job.

Many of those stories are heart-breaking. Kofi was inconvenienced, treated rudely, but ultimately allowed to continue on his way. Many of the people affected by the travel ban were refused entry, sent back to their points of origin, whether or not they had homes to return to, even if they had valid green cards (and some were coerced into surrendering those documents).

I felt some relief that, at least for now, the Trump regime has grudgingly agreed to cooperate with the many court orders putting stays on his decree. The preponderance of those orders strongly suggests the ban, as currently worded, will not pass muster at any level of the judicial system. Trump has said he may revise it to address the many legal concerns with how it's been framed and implemented. In the meantime, he's ordered an immigration crackdown: ICE officers have stepped up enforcement, putting employers, landlords, school principals, anyone who deals with undocumented immigrants in any capacity that there are likely to be more raids in their future. None of the people being targeted by ICE are from the seven countries Trump attempted to close American borders to. No, these are Mexicans: in fact, the nation of Mexico has warned all its citizens currently living in the United States to expect increased ICE activity.

At this point in the essay, I could go on a long rant that this is not what the United States is all about, that immigrants make us the strong vibrant nation we are, that it is our diversity that sets us apart from all other nations, that we are renowned as a welcoming nation where people of all colors, ethnicities, and creeds can enjoy freedom and prosperity--but I'm not going to. Because it's only ever been partially true.

There are certainly been times when the floodgates were opened, and immigrants poured into this country. But there has never been a blanket welcome. Irish, Italian, Jewish, Chinese, Japanese immigrants have all been greeted with suspicion, hostility, and abuse. Selective border restrictions have shut out whichever human beings Americans most feared or hated. In the buildup to World War II, European Jews were turned away; after Pearl Harbor. Citizenship was no guarantee of fair treatment, either: after Pearl Harbor, American citizens of Japanese descent were stripped of their rights, had their property seized, and were interned in camps. In the 1950s, Operation Wetback deported many American citizens of Mexican descent.

And don't even get me started on the horrors of how we've dealt with the millions of African-Americans whose ancestors were brought her, against their will, to be slaves. Or how the white majority has suppressed and slaughtered the people who were already here when Europeans first arrived.

This nation of immigrants, with its rainbow of skin colors and its chimeric culture, has never known exactly what to do with the ongoing renewal that comes with new waves of immigration--or with the lasting presence of so many millions who differ in any way from the European norms of the dominant culture. We've alternated between welcoming and rejecting them for so long, and in so many ways, that perhaps it's fitting we finally have a President who embodies our national bipolarity toward immigrants.

Fitting or not, though, it appalls me. If America's relationship to its immigration was an actual interpersonal relationship, it'd be well past time for the immigrants to write us off and go have a happier life somewhere else.

Nevertheless, they persist. There must be something about this country that, as badly as we treat these people, is worth all the effort they put into coming and staying here. Perhaps someday we'll live up to those dreams of who we are, deserve their devotion.

But not with this President.

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