My fellow Americans, this is a very special day for you and our country. It’s not the celebration new were hoping for, but we will gather with friends and family on the next July 4th to celebrate the best of this great country of ours, and some of you will proudly raise your hands and take the Oath of Citizenship in your own naturalization ceremonies.
For me, becoming an American in 2013 was one of the proudest days of my life. I arrived here, to America, as an immigrant, a young cook with $50 in my pocket, many decades ago. America has given me the opportunity to open new restaurants, raise three Spanish, beautiful American daughters, meet my wife, Patricia, and serve in the fight against hunger.
You, new American citizens, you have new opportunities too. You are, in many ways, the new ingredients of this nation. The new ideas and the new energy that WILL move American forward. But even as we build a better future, we should also learn from the past, because American history shapes our lives today.
As a chef, and a citizen, I am fascinated by the way food tells OUR story. Here in America, our food often tells the stories of those who came before us. People, who brought the best of the world to the heart of America.
Thomas Jefferson is known to history as an intellectual man, a sophisticated leader, with the finest tastes and an incredible garden. He entertained with fancy dinners, he was a wine expert, an importer of olive oil, a lover of vegetables. But it is only recently that we truly acknowledge how much of this reputation of his was created by his enslaved cook, Mr. James Hemings.
When Jefferson became the Ambassador to France, Hemings traveled with him to study French cooking. After three years of training in the most sophisticated [?] Hemings became chef de cuisine at the American Embassy on the Champs d’Elysee. He cooked for politicians, artists, scientists, and aristocrats. Also, he earned his own salary and spent part of his money on his own French tutor. He could have paid a lawyer to become a free man, but he reluctantly returned to America, again as a slave, with his sister Sally, who was pregnant with Jefferson’s child, just a few months after the start of the French Revolution. He came back to Monticello with a promise from Jefferson of his freedom, but only if he trained his successor. This isn’t just a story about chefs, or about ancient history. It’s a story about how this country, its past and its future is built by people whose own stories have been ignored for too long. Jefferson himself said, the care of human life and happiness, and not their destruction, is the first and only object of good government.
Today we need our government officials to understand our history, and our future, so they take care of human life and happiness for all Americans. They need to take care of Black lives, and Black happiness. Jefferson did not live up to his own words, but he was right about this – the first and only object of good government is to protect life and happiness.
Today, we know that too many Black men are being killed by our own police, our own government – the people who are supposed to take care of us, are not doing so at times. To change that, to hold true to Jefferson’s vision, your voice needs to join the voices that demand justice and fairness. New Americans and old Americans need to demand that all people are treated as equal, not just on paper, but in real life.
To be silent today, is to join the forces of oppression. We all need to speak up for our American values. To speak up for fairness. And to speak up for what is right. Speak up so people can breath free, once and for all.
I found my voice for freedom when I started volunteering at DC Central Kitchen. A non-profit with a mission of not wasting food, and more important not wasting people. In the process of feeding our city, we trained people with important skills. We gave them the same chance to belong that we enjoy. The founder of DC Central Kitchen, Robert E[?] that charity is too often about the redemption of the giver, when it should be about the liberation of the receiver. So, with this phrase in my mind, I started a new non-profit, World Central Kitchen, to feed the hungry around the world. To liberate the receiver, whenever disaster strikes. This great country has given the world, and immigrants like you and me, so much, but its also a struggle to give everything it promised to everyone. Jefferson gave us our ideas – of American liberty – while denying liberty to the chef who fed him and entertained his guests.
We are here in America not just to redeem ourselves, but to create a system that offers liberation for all. That, to me, is the definition of the new American dream in the 21st century - provide for others what you will hope to provide for yourself. Work as hard for those you don’t know, as for those you do. What makes you American is not a birth certificate or a passport, but your actions and the values you strive to uphold. What makes you American is your contribution to your communities, to society. What makes you American is working hard for those who come after you.
During this pandemic we have seen the true meaning of essential workers. And quite often, essential workers are immigrants – Americans by choice. They work as teachers, and as cooks, they work in the fields, and in the hospitals – some are researching vaccines to the COVID-19 virus – others are keeping our supermarkets stocked. Because at the end of the day, immigrants like you and me, we’re here to help build bridges, bring in solutions, contributing. And if we are to move forward together, we must have stronger bridges, not longer lines. Shorter walls, and longer tables.
As a new citizen, you have great opportunities and also great responsibilities. One of those duties is to care for the people who dream of being like you. Too many Dreamers live in this country in fear of deportation. Too many undocumented workers live in fear of government, even while they sacrifice for this country through this pandemic.
You, the lucky citizens of this country MUST speak up for them. We, all, must speak up on their behalf. You cannot be silent if you want to be a true American citizen. At my naturalization ceremony in 2013, my wife and I were told that America expects us to bring the best of who we are from the countries we came from, and to make that part of American’s rich DNA. We were told that to become an American was to become an active citizen, to speak up, not to be silent. To exercise our rights, like the right to vote.
We must all wake up each day knowing where we come from, and where we are going. Be proud of who you are, and where you belong.
Work hard to keep building the America that Jefferson described.
Work hard to build an America where Mr. James Hemings is celebrated.
Work hard for an America where immigrants are treasured and the door to immigration is open.
Work hard for the America we all dream of.
Happy Independence Day, and congratulations, my fellow Americans.