america, being america

after the election

When George Bush won re-election in 2004, my mother threw a tissue box at the TV screen. During the campaign, she’d marched in anti-war rallies, canvassed for John Kerry, and called our representatives. She was tired and frustrated and wanted more for our country. I was almost 10. I didn’t know then how visceral, how life-affirming or degrading, politics could be. All I knew was that my mother was scared.

A few days ago, a friend texted me something another friend had told her: “He felt like we’d been so careless—with our country, our community, ourselves.” When Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, my mother cried, not because she was upset, but because she was overwhelmed with joy. She grew up in a small, poor town in Ohio, a region of the country sometimes called the Rust Belt, a region that is overwhelmingly white. For her, Obama’s election symbolized an America that was going to make good on its founding promise that we have “certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Growing up with Barack Obama as president, it has been easy, for me at least, to believe in a narrative of linear progress, where history is what happened in the past and the future is what will be better. It has been easy for me to believe this in part because I’m white and in part because my education, until I came to college, instructed me that, even though the Declaration of Independence was written by rich white men, our country was nonetheless for the people, by the people.

On Election Day, my roommates and I returned to our house a little after one in the morning. By that point, the returns indicated that Donald Trump would be the next president-elect of the United States. This news hit us differently, because we’re vulnerable in different ways—for race, immigration status, gender, sexuality, religion. For so many Americans, this election has not just been about party politics or legislative agendas (although those two things will be of vital importance in the next four years), but about whose pain is, or rather, gets to be, visible—whose vulnerabilities matter and whose don’t.

Some commentators say this election was the rage of poor whites who feel America has left them behind. (In 2015, a journalist called my mother’s once prosperous hometown the pill mill capital of America.) Others, like Van Jones at CNN, say it’s a “whitelash,” an investment in the white supremacy that Trump’s campaign so viciously championed. And still others say that it’s a referendum on Obama’s policies, as if policies were somehow divorced from the people who make them. On Facebook, which I’ve been obsessively chained to since the election, I see these arguments hashed out again and again, some done clearly and some done only with bigotry. I don’t know whether it’s a measure of my age or awareness that I’m appalled but not surprised by the hatred that I see.

In 1935, Langston Hughes wrote in his poem “Let America Be America Again”:

Let America be America again.

Let it be the dream it used to be.

Let it be the pioneer on the plain

Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

I’ve called my mother nearly every day this week, even though the glass screen of my phone shattered the day after the election. (“It’s an easy, dumb metaphor that I don’t want,” I told my professor when he asked about it.) This semester, I’m taking two classes about race and ethnicity, and I tell my mother about what I’m learning—how so many of the narratives that I grew up on, stories about being post-racial and colorblind, can, in fact, perpetuate the paralysis that white Americans have around discussions of race, inequality, and the structures that maintain racial inequality along the white-nonwhite divide.

In 2004, John Kerry used the title of Hughes’ poem as his campaign slogan. We all know that he lost. Would things have gone differently if his campaign had been based on the end of the poem?

O, yes,

I say it plain,

America never was America to me,

And yet I swear this oath—

America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,

The abuse and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,

We, the people, must redeem

The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.

The mountains and the endless plain—

All, all the stretch of these great green states—

And make America again

Too often, political campaigns demand that we choose one side, and one side only: faith or despair. 2016, a year that seemed hell-bent on beating everybody down to their lowest point, was a year of such dichotomies. I know so many people who feel as if their lives were split in two this year, either because of the election or because of events in their personal lives. The fracturing that so many of us felt on our own was, in this sense, mirrored by the political rhetoric of the presidential campaign.

Faith or despair? Do we really have to choose? Or is that choice—a false choice, I think—the moment where faith becomes naïve? I would like to believe so, out of a selfish desire for self-preservation: I would like to believe that faith is a necessary and urgent thing, one that we must contextualize within our histories. “No History, No Self,” a favorite teacher of mine wrote on the board a few months ago. “Know History, Know Self.”

The night of the election, I walked around campus and saw people carrying their bodies as if they were on loan, as if they were scared of breaking them with their movements. The next morning, I went to class and heard Professor Tricia Rose talk about survival and resilience in African-American history. She played her favorite songs and sent us out on Beyoncé’s “Freedom”: “I break chains all by myself/Won’t let my freedom rot in hell/Hey! I’ma keep running/Cause a winner don’t quit on themselves.”

Don’t make America great again. Make America again, make it what so many Americans, especially those who have been persecuted because of their race, their class, their gender, their sexuality, their religion, have worked to make it become. In other words, make it what those who have been fighting for centuries recognize as a dream but work to claim as a reality anyway: the fundamental, unalienable dignity of an individual. Make the dream new. To my fellow whites, especially my fellow my white women, I add: Make it inclusive. Make that dream. And then, maybe, we as a people, not we the people, can say it plain, as Langston Hughes did in 1935, and as Barack Obama did in 2016, when he told a group of White House interns to “be kind, be useful, be fearless.”