SOUTH BEND — What is a real American?
Eighty people sat at round tables Saturday night and tried to digest that question before dessert. Sometimes it felt like the label itself was causing heartburn.
“Certainly there are more things in common,” chimed in his wife, Sandy Von Lackum. “But the political rhetoric is so absolute — red or blue.”
They were taking part in “A Little Taste of Peace,” where people of many different backgrounds learn from each other's perspectives. Several groups organized the event at the Good Shepherd Montessori School to honor the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, which is Monday.
“When I think about real Americans, I think about the way things were way before the white Americans came and the way resources were shared,” said Marchell Wesaw, member of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians.
Her ancestors in the South Bend area, she said, were welcoming and, once they took care of their own village, would share with the few neighboring tribes.
At another table, the conversation progressed:
“In the areas I lived in the south, your neighbors want to know you,” said Alisea McLeod, who grew up in Detroit and now lives in South Bend. “For me, southern hospitality is real. I never expected that, after nine years (in South Bend), I would barely know the people around me.”
Marilyn Bassett said she's enjoyed living in large cities like Washington, D.C., where it felt like there was room for lots of diversity. But here in South Bend, where she grew up and returned six months ago, everything feels “homogeneous.”
“I need to stretch and grow to make that (sense of openness to diversity) for myself,” she said.
“I lived in Europe most of my life, and Europeans think that Americans have a superiority complex,” said Grazio Falzon, a native of Malta, who moved to the United States in the early 1970s. “Then I come to this country and I find generosity. … It's so complex: What is a real American?”
At another table, Larry Nieswender described himself as a “white Anglo-Saxon Protestant” who grew up in little Walkerton and then went on to Indiana University in Bloomington during some rebellious years for the country.
“At that age I was rebellious,” Nieswender said of the way people may see him, though he doesn't like labels. “Now I'm just contrarian.”
At still another table, Jaleh Dashti-Gibson spoke of living in France for a year. She identified herself in France as American, but people there saw hints of her Iranian heritage in her face (her father is Iranian) and asked, “But where are you from?”
“I'm different because of my parents,” she said. “I'm different because of my religion (Baha'i Faith).”
Carolyn Smith's dad was German. Her mother was English. Raised in South Bend, the white woman ended up marrying a full-blooded Cherokee in Tennessee in 1963 — and that caused plenty of stir.
“There's always prejudice,” she said. “The best way to overcome it is to show more love and affection. It's hard, and it hurts. But you know when you go to bed at night, you're going to have that peace.”
Staff writer Joseph Dits: email@example.com 574-235-6158