I have never considered myself very patriotic. There have been times when I have been profoundly moved by the privilege of being an American citizen, but more often than not, I have been unable to overlook our country’s propensity for violence and racism, systems that we have (so far) been unable to banish to history. Even so, I know being American makes me luckier than some; I am granted rights and privileges that people in many parts of the world do not have. Our nation is not perfect, but we have the potential and resources to be so. Being a woman of color, an American woman of color, means I have had to vacillate between cautious optimism and utter despair as I live through each swing of the pendulum, the near constant back and forth between right and wrong, trying, but often failing, to get each and every one of us on the path to equality.
When the attacks on 9/11 happened, I, like every other American, was deeply horrified and completely unable to function because of the overwhelming sadness. It was impossible to witness such an event and not take it personally, no matter that I was 1500 miles away. It was one of the saddest periods I have ever witnessed, but also one of the most hopeful. Tragedy often has a way of shifting focus, giving us perspective, and boldly reminding us of both our humanity and mortality. The effect this time was that we came to genuinely believe we were in something together, that we would ultimately be OK because we were Americans. United. Something else shifted, though. Patriotism got redefined. Being a “real” American meant displaying a flag on your front porch, worshipping a Christian God, being a robust consumer, and supporting a war without hesitation. Before too long, patriotism was synonymous with conservatism. Truthfully, I didn’t care that much. I have never felt the need to make a demonstration of my love of country, which seems the appropriate stance since that love has never been steadfast.
I don’t presume this rebranding of patriotism was an entirely new phenomenon. I’m sure each generation must go through something like this when deep cultural changes are occurring. I was born just after the Vietnam War, a decade after the Civil Rights Movement. Those times, too, I understand, brought their own divisiveness, their own measure of what it meant to be a good patriot. What was brand new, however, is that my generation voted into office our country’s first black president.
I should go ahead and say here, as I have said many times before, growing up biracial in a predominately white world was hard. It can still be hard. Perhaps it is not possible to convey this experience to the white, Christian, able-bodied, cisgender, hetero population, but to be an American in a marginalized group is to forever carry these questions: Am I safe here? Will I be treated respectfully? Can I be myself in this space? If you don’t live with this reality, then this assertion may come across as hyperbolic. You may be rolling your eyes, noting “It’s a free country,” but that is the difference between the promise and potential of America versus the actuality of it.
Last night I watched Obama’s farewell speech, crying through parts of it. His presidency, more than anything else in my lifetime, gave me hope that the America we want to believe in could actually come to fruition. That’s not to say I have always been in agreement with his ideas and policies; he’s far too moderate for my liking. In his eight years, though, he has been dignified and graceful; the living embodiment of the American dream. I have never once doubted his devotion to this country, or that he didn’t sincerely believe he was acting in the best interests of our nation. He was all of these things and a black man. That we elected him, twice, made me proud. In no way did I believe it meant the end of racism, or that we would quickly be healed of our histories, but his presidency was a legitimate sign that we were headed in the right direction; a powerful way to show that, yes, America belongs to each of us.
And now we have Trump. It’s a lot to try to grasp, to realize we were doing the hard, slow work of measuring up to our ideals but just handed it all over to someone who threatens to completely unravel it. I am, of course, terrified. I have spent hours in conversations with friends trying to make sense of this, speculating on what it means, both short and long term. What I find most curious, though, is how we, as a country, are the same people who voted for two men who could not be more at odds with one another. I can’t shake the feeling that Trump supporters have been conned, but I know this has often been said of Obama supporters, too.
When Obama began his rise to fame, when it became clear he was going to have a following, those against him acted as if we had been sold a bill of goods; we had somehow been tricked into believing the hype because of his impressive oratory skills, nothing more. We had- to use a phrase I loathe- drank the Kool-Aid. There is no way to ascertain the truth of such a subjective claim, but let’s say for a moment that it’s true. Let’s suppose I merely got caught up in the hype, that the truth is Obama is insubstantial as a leader and I only supported him out of blind loyalty. If that is the fact, though, then I have decided I am perfectly OK with that. I feel zero shame in potentially making the mistake of putting my trust in a decent man, a man full of integrity who managed to live out the entirety of his two presidential terms without any personal scandals. Say what you will about his policies, tally up his imperfections if you must. Attempts to discredit his character, though, will always fall short, and I suspect this, more than anything, is what his opponents find so infuriating.
I have given up trying to understand how Trump was able to garner the level of support he did. I believe there is a lot more to it than racism, phobias, economics, and misogyny, although, to be sure, those things are definitely part of it. I will never understand how millions of people found it within themselves to defend the indefensible, sometimes, appallingly, invoking Jesus’s name to do so. I have watched his behavior for months, heard his own words, and witnessed the bullying attacks. I have seen the lies and delusions, the middle of the night Twitter meltdowns. The behavior is absolutely outrageous, so much so, if he were one of my loved ones, I would stage an intervention and try to get him mental-health help. Or I would decide to cut ties because his level of toxicity is so high. Now, though, he has been given the biggest platform in the world; his lunacy has been legitimized and God only knows what the costs will be.
The cliché “You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone” has never felt so true for me as it has in the past two months. Not until faced with a real threat to our country’s democracy, did I realize its importance. I stand by my words that America has yet to live up to its promises, though; I am not sad for something I once had and lost, rather I grieve for what I thought we were becoming. I hope whatever we are in for is temporary and reparable. May we find our way back.