AN OUTSIDER can bring a fresh perspective to our lives. No better proof of this came when Americans learned a lot about themselves through the views of Alexis de Tocqueville, the 19th century French observer.
A detached perspective allowed him to ruminate objectively about the enterprising spirit of Americans, their strong compulsion to unite over common interests and the egregious social ills of the day.
Similarly, insightful observations come from a Nigerian editorial writer spending a month at The Sun as part of a 10-month fellowship program. His name is Reuben Abati, who visited Howard County for a few hours recently. To him, America is a wonderland of wealth and opportunity with concerns that pale in comparison to more critical issues back home.
When Mr. Abati came to Howard, he was amazed with its wealth, even compared with other places in America. He expressed this, not with envy, but admiration. Disputes over zoning and school redistricting must have seemed trivial. He lives in a country rich in natural resources, but with constant concerns of governmental tyranny, corruption and seemingly intractable poverty.
He laments that Nigerian citizens must bribe officials to receive governmental services, that authorities seek to censor independent journalists like himself and that bank transactions take a day to complete.
Residents of many other countries look toward American life with similar admiration, as the flood of immigrants from Eastern Europe, Asia and Latin America clearly shows.
Not that America is perfect. Mr. Abati asks how a country that is so wealthy can tolerate poverty. And why does the nation's problem of the 20th century -- the color line, as defined by W.E.B. DuBois -- seem destined to remain the problem of the 21st century?
But he has an overwhelmingly positive view of this country. Money is not lying on the streets as is rumored on the other side of the Atlantic, but hope is limitless. He says he will return to Nigeria after his fellowship ends to continue using the power of his pen to push for a better future for his countrymen.
Mr. Abati describes the hopes Nigerians have of visiting America, just once in their lifetimes, the way families here talk about Disney World. Something to behold.
One thing that impressed him was the sense of "order." He mentioned this several times on a nickel tour of the county, with brief stops at Howard Circuit Court and the county government building. To him, our system of checks and balances on government make it more responsive to the public than his country and many others in the world.
I found his glowing assessment a stark contrast to the normal onslaught of complaints and cynicism about government, be it local, state or federal.
But his half-full-cup perspective seemed similar to that of other foreigners and naturalized Americans I have encountered over the years. Immigrants from Africa, the Caribbean, Europe and Asia see opportunity here.
A number of immigrant families push their children to excel in school, even if they arrived speaking not a lick of English.
In any language, however, they know that education is key to unlocking the chamber of possibilities for their children and future generations. First generations of Asian-American families have sunk roots in America by opening stores in cities. Some of these families live in Howard, where their children can expect a superior education that can lead to high-earning professional careers.
African-Americans have made strides, too, but not nearly enough. The main reason is the racial oppression the last several centuries have brought. But another is the half-empty-cup view of this country.
Looking at the nation as the Land of Oppression, as many African-Americans do, can obscure the enormous opportunity.
It would be foolish or naive to suggest that opportunity is equal; racial obstacles to black progress are strewn over the course of history and they remain today in both subtle and glaring forms.
But as African-Americans knock down these barriers, the way they approach life in America will play a pivotal role in determining outcomes.
Children who don't believe they will lead prosperous lives have no reason to value education. Why should they try to excel in school if they are convinced they will be permanent members of the underclass? If the same children look at America the way Mr. Abati does, they have every reason to believe they will be prosperous and will overcome obstacles.
So while it is important for African-American children, like all children, to learn about their heritage, they must use past struggles as a springboard, not a stone wall. And that is why they also should learn that despite America's flaws, viewing it as the Land of Possibility can bring more benefits than the self-defeating perspective of it was the Land of Oppression.
Even Howard, with its relatively affluent black population, can take a cue from Mr. Abati on that.
Norris West is The Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.
Pub Date: 2/16/97