I’ve been having a bit of a writing slump lately. It’s the kind of thing that builds on itself, like getting too hungry- pretty soon, any topic you think of writing about isn’t ‘big enough’ to break the not-writing streak you have going.
Tomorrow morning, when I wake up, there will be a new family in the White House. I wish them all the best. This isn’t about them.
This is about the man who is leaving.
I’ve been trying to gather my thoughts for a while about what this man means to me, to my country, and to me personally.
Growing up, many of my friends were first generation Americans. Many of them came from single parent households, or were raised by their grandparents. His challenges felt relatable to me. He felt like a person I could know. He was the America down the street from me, attending the same high school. The cliche of the 2000 election was that Bush was the better candidate to have a beer with, but both of those candidates seemed so separated from any kind of experiences I could understand. Which was why it was so bizarre to see the “anti-American” line of attack that became so popular against Obama. That he wasn’t born here, that he wasn’t like “us,” nevermind who “us” was intended to represent. The dog whistling on experiences that were so recognizable to me, they felt like an attack on people I knew. Were we not good enough to be American?
In a very tangible way, his winning felt like a true victory for having a stake in this country, in my country. It was both acknowledgement and acceptance of past evils, absent some of the pageantry and lip service that inevitably happens with large cultural acknowledgements. Patriotism has always belonged to the Conservatives in this country- loyalty without criticism, acceptance without understanding. Perhaps some of my memory is in the sharp black and white relief of a teen, but there was very little middle ground. Either you bought the party line, or you didn’t. His election win changed that for me. I could feel pride in a flawed country, based on hope.
Four years ago this month, I set out with a friend and colleague to attend the inauguration. We planned on driving south, and seeing a side of the country we hadn’t had a chance to explore.
We drove south, stopping at the Navajo reservation, the Grand Canyon, a Texas Steakhouse (any steakhouse in Texas is a monument by itself,) Beale Street, and a quick stopover in Georgia to grab another coworker before the Civil Rights Museum and the King Center. On the way, I got to see the country I had been very small part of organizing.
The United States does not frequently feel like a real concept to me. When people ask where I am from, I try to say “America,” not because it is an intrinsic part of my identity, but because I’ve heard too many non-Americans complain about how we divide down endlessly to the state or city level. So this may be the first experience I had of my country as a collective.
Someday I will try to explain to my kids what it felt like, watching him win. It felt like the country changed overnight, in potential if nothing else. That we had lived up to some kind of promise. I always joked that I would someday become one of those little old ladies with a gold framed photo of the president on the mantelpiece. He was a piece of American history. He was my generation’s Kennedy. In some ways, it paved the way for what’s coming tomorrow- people like me got too comfortable, while people who were threatened grew in resentment and anger.
He wasn’t perfect. No president is. But I’m so proud that I got to be an American while he represented us.