Inside looking out: America’s ‘Great Adventure’
When I was a boy growing up in rural New Jersey, my “America” was as far as my eyes could see down my street. There were the Roses, an Italian family, the Bogaskis were Polish, and I think the Weicherts were German. My family was of Hungarian descent. We all were Eastern Europeans come to live the American dream and just a few houses were my “country.”
Of course, I saw people of other races and cultures on TV, but they were as real to me as Bugs Bunny and Mighty Mouse. If they weren’t the families on my street or they didn’t go to my school, then they weren’t Americans to me. It was as simple as that.
It wasn’t until I entered junior high school and I was one of two white players on an otherwise all black basketball team that I had any experience with kids of another race. Off the court, we didn’t socialize and we hung out only with “our own.”
I had never realized living inside a bubble had altered my perception of people with whom I had no social contact. Ignorance led to stereotyping. My home and neighborhood were where the seeds of prejudice and racism were planted.
“I don’t want any of them living on my street,” I heard my father say. As his impressionable son, I believed his words. In fact, I learned to fear people who were not white like me, thinking they were dangerous and even inhuman. My father had said we’d have to move away if anybody “different” bought a house next door to us.
It’s been more than half a century since I lived on that street in New Jersey, but one thing hasn’t changed through the passing of time. People still live inside neighborhood bubbles, and if the truth be told, most don’t want to come out. I’ve heard the words, “America - Love it or Leave it” shouted out of some of their mouths and I’ve thought to ask the question, what America are you talking about?
I wondered if there was a place where families of different races, of different sexual orientation, and of different cultures could come together for the same purpose. Last week I found that place merely by accident.
I took my son and daughter to Great Adventure Amusement Park in Jackson, New Jersey. As my kids rode the coasters and thrill rides and I happily kept my feet on the ground, I observed hundreds of people walking through the park. There were white families, African American families, Hispanic families, and Asian families. There were Muslims in hijabs and Orthodox Jews wearing yarmulkes. There were interracial couples, women holding hands with women, men holding hands with men. There were white fathers doting over little black boys, white grandmothers eating ice cream with young black girls, and people everywhere speaking different languages.
I had never seen such a mixture of people all in one place before. I noticed an exceptional kindness between everyone, too, as they patiently waited for an hour to get on board of thrill rides that lasted 45 seconds.
Young adults said “excuse me” when they crossed in front of my path at a crowded walkway. I shared tables with people of different races and cultures while we waited for our children to return from their rides. We didn’t mingle, but we shared the park as if everyone understood that no one should be excluded.
The singular purpose why people go to an amusement park is to have fun. They walked in excited with anticipation, and on this day the temperature hovered around 100 degrees, enough heat to irritate the most avid lovers of the summer seasons. It had brought a new and literal meaning to America’s melting pot, and yet I witnessed no angst and no conflict as we navigated through the sweltering heat upon the sun baked pavement.
Political ideology and federal laws have done not nothing to reduce the wide divide of race and culture and quite frankly, demographic tensions have gotten worse.
Those who live inside bubbles and are striving to keep themselves apart from people unlike themselves cannot change the direction of the progress of American citizenship that has been coming from people who have the crossed lines of racial segregation and sexual orientation.
Our country is evolving into one race, the human race. Young adults are pulling away from the hard-line prejudices that their parents and grandparents have been standing on for years. Racism and prejudice will vanquish forever because more and more children are being born to interracial and intercultural parents.
Who would have thought that an amusement park named “Great Adventure” would be where a great adventure of American integration would happen?
A former U.S. Attorney General said, “Let us not act out of fear and misunderstanding, but out of the values of inclusion, diversity, and regard for all that make our country great.”
Perhaps one day, instead of the words: “America - Love it or Leave it,” we will see signs all across this country that say, “America - Love it and Live it!”
Then will we truly become one country and one people of the “United” States of America.
Rich Strack can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.