March 17, 2010
To Jessie Mae Williams
Recently my job has taken me to Shreveport, Louisiana. The airport is small: a collection of perhaps a dozen terminals connected to a ticketing hall, arrivals area and baggage claim housed under a single airy building glass building with beautifully high ceilings. The first time I arrived I was greeted in the airport bathroom by a squadron of Airforce cadets changing into their formal uniforms; the US National Airforce Command is nearby.
If you don't notice any half-naked wingmen you are likely to notice the colossal American flag hanging on the tall west wall of the baggage claim. The familiar red and white stripes of the flag have been made by a patchwork of hand painted art immediately recognizable as the work of young children.
The flag is immediately adjacent to the Hertz Rent-a-Car kiosk. While I stood in line I took it all in. I attempted to try and devote my attention to each and every one of the panels in turn. Later I had learned that the art was constructed by area elementary school students. They had been asked to paint the answer to a simple question, "what does it mean to be American?"
The minority of patches answer the question directly: "respect for all," "choices," "liberty," and may contain emblematic symbols such as the statue of liberty or an eagle. Others are preachy: "Jesus is Lord," "God Bless America," "ALL RELIGION PREFERENCE RESPECTED" (sic), "down with war." Many give thanks to the armed services: "thanks nat'l guard," "marines thanks," and "come home soon." And still others are plane dada: a truck, a frog, and beautiful rendering of some juicy ripe tomatoes.
Out of the more than 600 patches which comprise the flag, my one true favorite is the girl who took the initiative. The proud. The unique. The individual who wasn't afraid to put her stamp of individuality and stake a claim of ownership of these United States. The girl who wrote her name in big, beautiful red letters: Jessie Mae Williams.
Dear Jessie, you have brilliantly captured what I feel is the true essence of America. To you, Jessie Mae Williams, the spirit of America!