During a conversation last night, a friend reminded me of one of the earliest accounts of a Sikh in the United States, in which a merchant trader from Massachusetts named Captain Stephen Phillips wrote in his journal about a Sikh man that he brought back from India in the late 1700s:
After his retirement in the late 1700s, he apparently brought back to his home town of Salem a tall, intrepid Sikh who ‘stalked around town in the turban and white woolen coat and red sash of his sect.’
My friend cites a similar account of a Sikh in Massachusetts from a different source: by one Reverend William Bentley in 1789. I am assuming both accounts (if they are two different accounts) reference the same Sikh man. Thus, it is very possible that this Sikh lived in the colonies during the time they declared their independence from Britain in 1776.
Over two centuries later, Sikhs enthusiastically celebrate Independence Day today. There can be no argument that the United States has provided opportunity of all kinds for the Sikhs who arrived on these shores, particularly over the past century — life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, as it were. We enjoy a religious freedom here that has not always been possible in other places in the world.
Yet, our celebration of America, and being American, takes a different flavor than it does for many other people. Even today, as we celebrate Independence Day, we sometimes go a bit further; Sikh Americans often feel that they must prove their patriotism and defend their citizenship, rather than simply celebrate these things. Many Sikhs feel that we must convince the general public that while we look different, we are American, our values are the same as that of America, and that this will combat the discrimination and prejudice that we face in this country. On this blog, I too have often taken this approach, though recently, I find myself questioning our need to continually “prove” our right to exist freely in this country. We are not guilty of whatever some think we are until we prove ourselves innocent, and by virtue of our citizenship, we have earned our place in this land and deserve to enjoy this with dignity.
In many ways, our civil rights struggle — the daily struggle of many Sikh men, women and children — is the realization of the self-evident words in the Declaration of Independence: “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
When Sikh Americans can say that they have achieved full equality in this country and are free to enjoy unalienable Rights as a people, we, as a nation, can say that we have taken a forward step towards this nation’s vision for independence. I am hopeful that this is something we will see in our lifetimes.
Happy Fourth of July.