The day after my wife, our daughter, and I returned from Scandinavia, we squeezed through the entrance gate to the Denver Pride Festival.
Repeat: the day after my family and I returned from taking a trip only a small percentage of Americans are privileged enough to afford, we sat on a hillside and waved a rainbow flag because my wife and I are still not privileged enough to trust our marriage will always be legal.
The Scandinavian countries we visited — Finland, Sweden, and Norway — approved same-sex partnerships in the mid-1990s and legalized gay marriage in 2009, six years before the U.S.; that knowledge faded the colors in the rainbow flags all around us at Denver’s Pride Festival. But in Scandinavia, Meredith and I never knew where it was safe to hold hands or kiss in public; at the Denver Pride Festival, we kissed long in the midst of hundreds of people, our arms wrapped around each other, our daughter exclaiming, “EWWW!”
A black man working at a gas station in Sweden in 1927 was such an anomaly of difference in that country at that time that people drove for miles just to glimpse him. In 2017, we walked through a more diverse Scandinavia, but most of the people of color we saw were in service positions, and everyone of every color turned their heads, curious, to see Mitike between me and Meredith. It was a relief to walk unremarked through the Denver Pride Festival.
In Americanah, which I started reading on IcelandAir on our flight home, Chimamanda Adichie asks me again and again to hold my privilege up to the light and examine it carefully like an Icelandic sunstone. Her sharp voice is tinged with humor, but it cuts. Who are you, American white woman, to travel so freely through this world? No one looks askance at you. In the Copenhagen airport, a man conducting a survey on an iPad speaks to you in Danish because your height, your skin color, your hair and eye color (every gene that you inherited from ancestors who farmed only two hundred miles southwest of there in Schleswig-Holstein) tell him you are Danish. Do you imagine it will ever be this easy for your Ethiopian daughter? You make her a world traveler, teaching her how to easily flash her blue U.S. passport; you teach her to try cold-smoked salmon, to whisper inside the medieval stave church, to revel in the sea spray in the Norwegian fjords, but you cannot teach her to glide through the world the way you do, because her skin color, hair, and eye color (the genes she inherited from her ancestors seven thousand miles southeast of Copenhagen) will be barriers. Customs officials will often ask how long she has been a U.S. citizen; they will speak slowly in clearly enunciated English, though English has been her primary language since she was eighteen months old. They will carefully scrutinize her visa. And you will be staying in our country for how long? And you plan to do what? Back home, at the Denver Pride Festival, people grin at our family of three because we are diverse; we are the dream so many LGBTQ people dream. Their eyes linger on Mitike’s face. She is the daughter they want. She is so beautiful, so exotic. They say to us, You must be very proud of her. She has such lovely features, not African at all.
In Stockholm and Oslo, but also in the Norwegian port city of Bergen, we walked past immigrants who have resettled in Scandinavia. I guessed at their stories, based on what I have heard from my refugee students. I imagined the Somali woman and her children who strode past us in Oslo had first spent years in a refugee camp in Uganda. I imagined the Syrian men who stood talking at a bus stop in Stockholm had paid a boatman to take them on the risky crossing of the Mediterranean. I imagined the Afghani man and woman talking in the Bergen fish market had escaped their village and the Taliban, as one of my students did, on horseback. The world knows that the Scandinavian countries are welcoming to immigrants, and that my country — historically the most welcoming of all — is abruptly not, as Trump works to halve the number of refugees we accept. And how odd, that Trump’s supporters are mostly descendants of immigrants who came from Norway, Sweden, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Italy. How quickly we forget. At the Denver Pride Fest, I waved my flag in gratitude, as usual, that my country’s highest court has insisted that my marriage to my wife is legal, but I also thought of the times in these past few months that I have stood in this same spot in front of the Colorado Capitol Building, holding up signs that plead for openness to immigrants. What kind of nation do we want to be in the world, anyway?
We went to Scandinavia because I wanted to travel somewhere where we would be safe, and all the guidebooks promised that nowhere is more open and more tolerant. In city after city, we stayed in hotels that cheerfully gave me and Meredith a double bed, glanced at our common last name, welcomed us with a bright nod and (always) breakfast the next morning. I imagined living in one of those cities, never returning to the U.S., happily enrolling Mitike in one of those reputable Finnish schools or dropping her at camp in the Norwegian mountains as Meredith and I prepared for a holiday in some quaint village. To be born American and to be liberal is to be always embarrassed abroad, ashamed of the president (in 2003, Bush invaded Iraq just as I rode a bus into Nicaragua — now, in 2017, there is Trump), ashamed of fellow Americans who are too loud and too certain they deserve preferential treatment, ashamed of a history that has included slavery and Native American massacres and now continues into modern times with acquitting Philando Castille’s killer and withdrawing from the Paris deal on the climate and refusing to provide health care to all its citizens. Traveling, Meredith and I taught Mitike to speak quietly, attempt words in other languages, show extra gratitude. Maybe they’ll assume we’re Canadian. It jolted us to walk into the cheerful fray of the Pride Fest in Denver, where scantily clad people shouted and waved rainbow fans, flags, underwear, boas, posters, pinwheels. We were quiet, too European. We sat on a grassy hill and observed, and fit in nowhere.
We walked into Oslo’s Vikingskipshuset, the Viking Museum, and gazed in awe at the grandly renovated Oseberg, a Viking ship from 834 CE that was discovered and dug up on a farm in 1903. Two women had been buried in the ship, in state, along with horses and dogs and cows, armor, kitchenware, clothes, tents, a wagon and a sled. The Vikings honored their chiefs in this way, since they believed that they would be able to use all of these objects in the afterlife, in Valhalla. I loved the mystery of who these honored women had been. Days later, at the Denver Pride Fest, I wondered what might remain of us one thousand years from now. Mitike’s plastic beads, maybe, some of our metal tooth fillings, the matching rings Meredith and I wear — the hard diamonds still sparkling. In this era that overdocuments everything, will any document remain? Something will have replaced the Internet, rendering it as inaccessible as floppy disks and VHS tapes are now, or all of humanity will have been catapulted backward by climate change trauma to survival — campfires, carved wooden tools, pictures painted on stone walls again. And someone will find some fragment of evidence from 2017, one thousand years before, and wonder about our lives, how we lived them, who we were.
An older acquaintance hears we traveled to Scandinavia and exclaims, “You took Mitike there? To the most racist countries in the world?” I was speechless for a moment. Racist? The 2017 UN report includes all of the Scandinavian countries through which we passed in the top ten happiest countries in the world. Norway is first. Maybe Sweden is only tenth because it has struggled with race relations as Sweden invites more and more immigrants across its borders, but our family’s experience in all of Scandinavia was positive, or at least no different from our experience in the U.S. Women of color did a double-take to see Mitike with us; they often studied her hair (perfectly done in neat microbraids and beads, scalp oiled, thank you). Small children stared. But the mostly blonde and blue-eyed residents of Scandinavia were unfailingly friendly to all three of us. What I wish I’d said to my acquaintance: Being white doesn’t mean you’re racist. What I did say: Have you been to Oslo? It’s quite diverse. A true but weak answer. The Denver Pride Fest was whiter than Karl Johans Street in Oslo. The summer camp in Keystone where I just dropped off Mitike is the whitest place I’ve seen in a long time. It’s all more complex than what we see.
My wife and I stood in a green mossy forest of tall spruce trees (are they called Norway Spruce in Norway?) and watched our daughter search in half-serious earnest for fairies in the shadows of the clover leaves. And then, one day later, we stood in Denver’s blue-sky sunshine with our arms around each other’s waists, our daughter close. Oh, yes. I know to be grateful for this life.
For my fortieth birthday, I wanted to travel somewhere I had never been before. On the way home, on IcelandAir, Mitike leaned her head against my shoulder and murmured, “We’re lucky to be able to travel to places like Scandinavia, aren’t we?” I nodded. Unbelievably lucky. Guilt nagged at me. Look at us with our blue passports and our resources, hopping on planes and trains and boats, wandering cobblestone streets, posing for pictures in front of medieval towers. Look at us and our comfort, our ability to leave our secure little house in south Denver and peer into others’ windows. Even at Pride back in Denver, I continued to feel this mix of luck and guilt. Yes, we are a minority, and yes, maybe my wife is right to be cautious in certain neighborhoods and certain situations about how out we are, but after this parade ends, we’ll walk back to our car and drive home to our dog, who will greet us with his curly wagging tail, and we’ll make dinner in our kitchen together and hold hands before we eat, the little circle we make a protective shield for our family. We’re lucky to be together in this complicated world, right now, no matter where we are wandering.
In 2010, my father and his siblings discovered Ancestry.com, that website that allows a person to search birth, marriage, military, census, and death records to construct a family tree.
And because an Ancestry.com tree becomes more accurate as users add more relationships to it, my father and my uncle and my aunts sent me, my sister, and my cousins email invitations to add our own families to the growing tree.
I opened the tree and studied it with growing resentment. According to Ancestry.com, I was a divorced single mother of one daughter, but that did not describe my actual life at all. My daughter was adopted from Ethiopia, with a family tree all her own, difficult (or impossible) to trace because her biological parents’ births had not been recorded in any official way. And I was not technically a single mother, since I lived with Ali, my partner of three years, and her two children.
With a few swift clicks, I added Ali to the tree as my spouse, though same-sex marriage was not legal in Alaska at the time, and Ali had never been interested in marriage, anyway. Another click: I added Ali’s two biological children. With my divorce branching off in one direction and Ali branching off in another, I tangled the neat lines of the Hahn family tree.
When Ali died a year later, I did not have the heart to update the Ancestry.com tree. I barely had the heart to keep putting one foot in front of the other.
Then, this past June, the Vikings led me back to Ancestry.com. In June, I learned at the Oslo Viking Ship Museum that one of the Vikings’ major trading settlements, Hedeby, was located in today’s Schleswig-Holstein, a state in northern Germany from which half of my ancestors (all of my father’s side) emigrated in the mid-1800s. I wanted to know more. I wanted to know why the sight of the Oseberg ship jolted some familiarity in me (is that why I’m so drawn to spirals?). When I started asking these questions, my uncle Jim, our family archivist, sent me a DNA kit from Ancestry.com, and, out of curiosity, I logged in to the website again.
A family tree hides as much as it reveals. I “cleaned up” my part of the Hahn family tree by deleting the fake marriage to Ali and adding the real, legal marriage to Meredith. I added Mitike’s legal adoption by me in 2008 and her adoption by Meredith last December, and I added the names of Mitike’s birth parents. I traced Meredith’s family awhile, out of curiosity, discovering that one ancestral line zigzags all the way back to the 1500s in Alsace, France. Then I studied our section of the tree, noticing how our marriage is an end to our two lines in our families, how the appearance of Mitike as the daughter of two mothers could confuse someone who failed to notice the adoption records. How disconcerting, the reduction of entire human lives to small rectangles that contain only a first, middle, and last name, a birthdate, and a death date.
What does that branching tree explain about me, about Meredith, about Mitike? What does it reveal about Rachel Banta, my grandmother’s great-great grandmother, who was born in 1780 in Pennsylvania? What does it hide about my wife’s grandmother’s great-great grandmother Charity Brewer, who was born in 1805 in North Carolina? How much does it refuse to explain about Mitike’s ancestors, who weathered a struggle between Muslim settlers and Ethiopian Christians in the early 1800s, and who witnessed battles between feudal kings?I am still dissatisfied with the story Ancestry.com tells, but I appreciate now that it is one place to begin.
Lesbian historians like Lillian Faderman (especially in Surpassing the Love of Men, 1981; and To Believe in Women, 1999) have argued that lesbians must discover and build their own sense of heritage. That means that Patience and Sarah, that wonderful straightforward 1969 book by Alma Routsong about a lesbian pioneer couple, is as much a description of my ancestry as my genetic map is. That means that discerning the truth of historical relationships — Susan B. and Anna D., Virginia and Vita, Eleanor and Lorena — is as crucial to understanding who I am as the 1847 passenger list of the ship that carried my ancestors Wulff and Gretje from Hamburg to New Orleans.
On Ancestry.com, the self is the first rectangle. Click the green plus sign, add a relationship. Connect. Add another relationship. Intertwine. The lines seem to tangle, but they barely whisper the outlines of deeply complex stories.
This summer, I began creating a new book — part trail guide, part history — on the 60+ Colorado peaks and lakes named after women. I’m calling it “Remember More Than Their Names,” and I’m blogging about my hiking and research discoveries at http://remembermorethantheirnames.blogspot.com/. I think of these historical women as my ancestors, too, though we only have our gender and Colorado in common. Determining the identity of each woman has been surprisingly difficult, since maps have traditionally used only the first name of a woman honored. Again and again, it has been Ancestry.com that has given me the outline of the story. Then it is up to me, the storyteller, to fill in the rest. For example, Ancestry.com told me that Helen Rich of Breckenridge, the namesake for Mount Helen, died a single woman with no children, but local records and her own papers reveal that she lived for decades with the poet Belle Turnbull. In Turnbull’s poetry, I found reference to forbidden passion, to domestic bliss. And the two women are buried together. Another piece of the heritage told.
I know the danger of looking backwards too long. I know that it is as important that I live my life now, in 2017 Colorado, as it is for me to discover and tell the stories of these women who lived in the past. But I believe I can learn to make of my life something deeper if I can pull these stories from the shadows. This other way of tracing and building heritage matters as much as the genetic map of my bloodline.
When I stood gazing at the Oseberg ship in Oslo’s Viking Ship Museum in June, my blood thrummed with the familiarity of the curves of the ship, the intricate carvings, the spiral on the prow. I touched the silver spiral I wear at the base of my neck, and I leaned closer to my wife and my daughter. What did I recognize? Maybe Ancestry.com would deny a genetic connection between me and the two women — one 25–30, one 50–55 — who were buried together, in state, in the Oseberg ship in 834 CE, but I am certain they are part of my heritage, too, if only because they were women. Maybe the elder was a queen (some have suggested she was Queen Åsa of the sagas) and the younger was a sacrifice. Maybe the elder was a völva, a seer, a holy woman, and the younger was her lover or her apprentice or both.
We will never know. But with each fragment we find, we discover ourselves more deeply. The mystery is my heritage. The seeking is what I want to trace.
On November 9, early in the morning, I researched emigration to Canada.
I explored whether Canada needs experienced psychologists like my wife (it does) and whether I could get a teaching license there (I could) and whether we could find an Ethiopian community for Mitike there (yes: Toronto).
But I was wrong to try to flee Trump’s America.
Two and a half months later, I know that my responsibility as a woman, as an educated person who grew up in relative privilege, as a teacher in a large city high school that serves a refugee population, as a writer, as a mother, and as an American is not to flee this country but to stay and join the resistance.
On Saturday, January 21, I pulled on my handmade crocheted pink pussy hat and marched beside my wife and daughter in Denver. We joined over 150,000 other people. Those of us in pink hats grinned at each other, connected. Meredith and I marched holding hands, our daughter leaning close, reading the protest signs to us: “Forward, not backward!” and “No racism, no homophobia, no xenophobia, no Islamophobia” and “Women’s rights are human rights” and “My pussy has TEETH!” and “Nasty women make history” and “LOVE WINS!” and “I’m with her and her and her and her and her!” In Civic Center Park, we cheered for spoken-word poets and singers and leaders and activists, and hope swelled in the air. My mom and I (both in our pink hats) wrapped our arms around each other’s waists as a woman law-maker asked the crowd to shout out the names of women who have inspired us. I shouted Mom’s name; she shouted Gram’s. The atmosphere was inclusive, optimistic, activated, even cheerful. On the way home on the train, I vibrated with the good energy of it all, glowing to think that, though I had marched in Denver, I had marched alongside my friends in Chicago and St. Paul and Portland and San Francisco and D.C. and Des Moines and Juneau and Tucson, and alongside the over one million other people who had marched that day.
Critics kept asking why we were marching, but they only had to read our signs: we marched to insist that we will fight for the rights of all people, for goodness and decency, for a world that is not built on greed or power, but on a deep belief in humanity’s capability for love and progress. The Women’s March was not officially a march against Trump. But in these first days of his presidency, we are all realizing that our resistance must be against him and his government, that in fact, the most American, most constitutional, most patriotic reaction to Trump’s election is to resist it. As Alexander Hamilton wrote in the Federalist Papers, No. 28, in 1787, “If the representatives of the people betray their constituents, there is then no resource left but in the exertion of that original right of self-defense which is paramount to all positive forms of government.” Resistance is the only way we will keep our freedoms in this country. It is the only way we will keep our country.
Many of those who voted for Trump believe he is the resistance, the wrecking ball come to destroy the government that has failed to support them and failed to improve their lives. They shake their heads at our protests; they tell us to accept Trump’s win and move forward; they claim we liberals just can’t handle the “locker room talk” or Trump’s willingness to ignore political correctness. And this, of course, is another symptom of the serious peril in which we find ourselves. As Hannah Arendt wrote in her preface to The Rise of Totalitarianism, “It is as though mankind has divided itself between those who believe in human omnipotence (who think that everything is possible if one knows how to organize masses for it) and those for whom powerlessness has become the major experience of their lives.” In other words, if those who believe they are omnipotent can convince the ones who feel powerless that they speak for them, too (though they do not intend to), then they will achieve ultimate power at any cost. Hitler did that with great success for some time. Now Trump, the millionaire businessman, is claiming to his poverty-stricken supporters in West Virginia and Michigan that they are the “forgotten people” and that he is their “messenger” — and when he speaks, they cheer wildly, praising God.
And that is why marching on one day — even with millions — is not enough. The resistance against Trump’s corporate coup d’etat must be vigilant, constant, aggressive, and committed. We must not put our signs away. We must keep ourselves informed of every executive orderand every bill proposed in Congress. We must write our legislators emails and letters, we must call them until they recognize our voices, we must create and sign petitions, we must organize groups in person so we can keep each other aware (look into registering an Indivisible Group; a group of people and I are meeting to do just that on Monday), we must contribute money to independent media (I support The Guardian, The New Yorker, and Democracy Now!), we must keep yelling the truth when the “alternative facts” are presented, and we must vote and vote and vote in every local and regional election. If we can, we must remain vocal about the issues that matter to us most, even if others pressure us or order us to be quiet.
I’m researching in this way so I can be ready if I need to be. What will I be prepared to do? Could I run secret subversive messages, like the French characters in All the Light We Cannot See? Could I shout “TWO PLUS TWO IS FOUR!” even though the authorities tell me I must say five or be tortured, as they told Winston in 1984? Could I speak publicly against oppression, as the women in Hidden Figures did? Could I smuggle threatened people (like my Muslim students, like my students whose parents are undocumented or who are themselves undocumented) in and out of my own house, as so many people did in Europe during World War II? Could I write and speak and organize, even against threats, like the women in In the Time of the Butterflies did? Could I stand strong with others although pipeline construction equipment or tanks roll toward us?
I think I could. I hope so.
These days and weeks and months ahead will test me, as they will test us all. But what I’m learning from my research is this: years from now, history will ask how people responded to Trump and his plans for America, and I will say that I stayed.
Every November, I plant tulip and daffodil and crocus bulbs in the cold, hard dirt of my garden. The bulbs are papery brown, with elfin points. I bought sixty this year, and for an entire morning, while my daughter and her friend tumbled nearby in the yard, I labored to dig six-inch holes in the Colorado clay, to drop in three or four bulbs, and then to cover them with rich potting soil and fertilizer.
Mitike and her friend crowded close: “But when will they come up?” they wanted to know, scrunching their faces at the ugly work of dirt and brown bulb and dead leaves. I shrugged. “They need months of cold. In the spring, they’ll surprise us. Don’t worry.”
In the early morning of November 9, when the news that Donald J. Trump had won the American presidential election was still a fresh wound, I stood at my kitchen window and stared in the gray light at the empty dirt strip along our garage, where I had planted three dozen of the daffodil and tulip bulbs. I hated the obvious metaphor. I wanted the munificence of yellow and red now; I wanted lush green, fertile bloom, the explosion of hope—not more crumbled dirt layered with dog shit and impermeable clay.
An hour before, I had held my wife close as she cried and murmured her fear for the legality of our marriage, for her second-parent adoption of our daughter, for the safety of the immigrants in our community, for all women. Our daughter bounded into our room at 5 a.m.: “Did she win? Did she win?” We pulled her into bed with us, inhaled her coconut oil scent. “No,” I said gently, and Mitike’s eyes widened. “But what will happen now?”
Now, for a while, we will grieve. The world I entered on November 9 was as funereal as it was surreal. At the sprawling Denver high school where I teach English, students and teachers spoke in hushed voices or hugged each other, their faces tear-streaked. Our student population is comprised mostly of Hispanics, African Americans, and immigrants from over one hundred and twenty countries. Many of them are Muslim, some are GLBTQ+, half are girls. A Trump victory shouted in their faces that they are not welcome here, that America is not safe for them. They had hoped America would dream of them as much as they have dreamed of America, but this morning, that hope lay trampled beneath red “Make America Great!” signs. A death.
In every class, I gave the students—all seniors—space to talk. The air felt more like grief group than English class. A___ expressed her rage, claiming she would unfriend any Trump supporter on social media, that anyone who had voted for him had voted for white supremacy and misogyny and against her, an African American girl. M___ told us her family had discussed late last night whether they should risk the return to Ethiopia. W___ wondered why so many Americans do not vote; in his native Ghana, he said, people have died for that right. Many students with illegal parents shared their fears of deportation. S___, who is Muslim, asked how he could feel safe now, when the new president gave permission to his supporters to use violence against people like him. F___ entreated everyone to work harder, and R___ insisted that our fear will accomplish nothing, that we need to be like her parents, who risked the long journey through the desert from Mexico for a better life. The better life is still here, she said. D___, who ships out with the Marines this summer, reminded us all that one man doesn’t have ultimate power in America, that the country we make is still up to us. In every class, the square space of our classroom became again the America I believe in, countering the terrible truth that a misogynist, racist, impulsive, xenophobic wheeler and dealer has just become president.
But there is still that truth.
I reassured my students about the short term, about American processes, about the protections of the Constitution. And I reminded them about the long view; I reminded that them their voices, written and spoken, matter now more than ever; I insisted that those of us who can afford to speak boldly WILL.
But here, approaching, is President Trump.
The media is already trying to soften the blow, positing that he will be unable to accomplish everything he has proposed, that our system will check and balance him, that it’s only four years, after all. But it’s not just Trump that makes us grieve today. It’s the realization that the America that chose Trump hates those of us who are women, immigrants, Muslims, people of color, GLBTQ+ that much.
I try to understand the thinking of the Trump voters—not the raging white supremacists or the gun-toting border-patrolling xenophobes, but the average rural American. I grew up in eastern Iowa on a farm; I attended high school twenty-one years ago in Davenport, Iowa, where John Deere and ALCOA and the IBP Slaughterhouse are still the largest employers. I am certain that many of my former classmates voted for Trump. If I met them for a beer at a bar on Brady Street, would they tell me they voted for Trump because they hate me and my wife and my African daughter, my immigrant students, all women in general?
I don’t think so. I think they’d tell me about how they never get ahead, no matter how many hours they work. I think they’d tell me about how college—even community college—is prohibitively expensive. I think they’d tell me about how those jobs at the slaughterhouse don’t pay what they paid their fathers, and that many companies prefer cheap unskilled labor these days, anyway. I think they’d say, Wasn’t there a day when America was better than this? And we would sip our beer and gaze out at the new suburbs, built on rich farmland that no one can afford to cultivate any longer. Not in this economy.
Someone posted on Twitter that the white working class chose Trump for the same reasons a cancer patient chooses chemotherapy: injecting poison into your body might be worth it if it kills the cancer. Again, I imagine sharing that beer with my former Davenport West classmates who voted for Trump. You chose the wrong guy, I would say. He won’t stand up for you. It was all bluster. He said what he needed to say to get elected. He won’t change your lives. And: Don’t you want a leader who displays basic kindness and respect? Iowa taught us to be better than this.So says the lesbian woman with two master’s degrees, the teacher of immigrants.
The conversation in the Davenport bar won’t happen. My former classmates and I live in two different countries.
And that’s America’s most serious problem right now. The red country and the blue country speak different languages, have radically different cultural values and taboos. Who will unite us, and how? As my daughter and I made dinner the night after the Trump victory, the radio buzzing as the NPR commentators struggled to analyze the brave new Trump world, she asked, “But Mom, what will happen now?”
I studied my beautiful, smart, inquisitive daughter a moment, and then I gazed out the kitchen window. Again, I stared at the barren strip of dirt where I had planted those dozens of tulips and daffodils. My chest ached.
Soon, my wife would come home from seeing her patients, and we would all sit down at our table, link hands, murmur thanks, and then eat together. In eastern Iowa, a Trump-supporting classmate of mine will also sit down with his wife and his child, and they will also link hands and murmur thanks and then eat together. In Aurora and Denver, my students from Burma, Ghana, Liberia, Eritrea, Cambodia, Mexico, Honduras, and Iraq also sit sharing meals with their families. We are all linked like this. We are not so different. We could resist the temptation to let hate divide us and defeat us.
“Mom?” Mitike persisted. “I said, what will happen now?”
I could talk about tulips and daffodils, the way we wait through the cold dark months until finally—suddenly!—the bright green shoots rise from the snow and the mud, and then brilliant red and yellow and orange blooms burst open. I could talk about why the wait and the cold and the dark are worth it, or about the promise we nurture with our hope. I could talk about how we will refuse to move backward, that we will keep demanding progress. And I will, later.
Right now, I just gather my sweet little daughter into my arms, and I say, “We love each other, and we finish making dinner.”
In the winter of 2015, Starbucks tried to get its patrons to talk about race.
Across the country, baristas in the iconic coffee shop slapped a black-and-white sticker onto cups: “Race Together.” They initiated dialogues; they committed publicly to hiring ten thousand disadvantaged youth and to open more stores in low-income neighborhoods. Their stock rose. Critics claimed the coffee franchise giant just wanted free publicity. Others said it was a trite way to talk about race. Still others mocked Starbucks’ efforts and suggested they should tackle income equality instead — including the fact that a twenty-ounce latte at Starbucks costs nearly one hour’s pay for a minimum-wage worker.
Starbucks says it ended its “Race Together” campaign in March 2015 exactly as planned, not in response to the criticism. And a year later, as cars continue to line up in Starbucks drive-thrus and people continue to sit hunched over laptops in Starbucks cafes, the weeks when the franchise tried to get its patrons talking about race seem quietly forgotten.
It’s easier that way. We don’t like the discomfort of that conversation over our steaming mochas and cappuccinos. But of course, for some of us — white, Protestant, salaried — it’s a privilege to say “no thank you” to the race conversation. We take another sip of our coffee, sit back in the black leather chair, listen to the music playing from the speakers overhead. We talk about a story we heard on NPR on our way over.
This is not everyone’s privilege in this country. My daughter, who is adopted from Ethiopia, thinks about race constantly. She is only nine, but every moment of the day, her difference confronts her. In school, her white and Hispanic friends ask to play with her beaded braids. They are curious. They love the bright colors of the beads but also the way the complicated parts pattern Mitike’s scalp. When she wears her hair free, her friends ask, How did you get it so curly? No girl with straight blond hair attracts as much attention.
When Mitike joined a city volleyball league for nine-to-ten-year-old girls in August, she noticed immediately that she was the only girl with brown skin, black curly hair, dark brown eyes. All the other girls, mostly residents of the affluent Denver neighborhood surrounding the recreation center, have blue or green eyes, blond hair, names like Payton and Ashley and Piper. Meredith and I picked up Mitike at the end of the first practice, expecting to hear about games and drills. Instead, Mitike frowned at the ground and asked, “Is there any place in Denver where a blond girl would stand out?”
Of course. In the east Denver hair salon where I take Mitike to get her hair braided every six weeks, I am the only white person I see all afternoon. I sit in one of the black plastic chairs in the waiting room and endure the double-takes of the patrons who push open the door (it sticks) and nod and smile at the Ethiopian owner as the little bells on the door handle tinkle. They catch sight of me, then look again. A white girl? In this salon? The men shake their heads and proceed to the back, where they get their beards oiled and their heads shaved. The women stare a little longer, then survey the salon suspiciously until they find Mitike wincing in her chair, the stylist parting another section to braid. Ah. A white woman with a black child. Well, at least she knows where to bring her to get her hair done.
The first time we visited one of these salons in Denver, Mitike couldn’t stop talking about it. “Everyone looked like me!” she said. “Now you know what it feels like to be so different!” Embarrassed of my embarrassment, I tried to hide my red face, my quivering lip. For four hours, I’d endured the stares and the muttered asides, and one woman’s glare. But I understood: Mitike feels this level of scrutiny every day. It was my turn.
My Ethiopian daughter has pulled me bodily into the dialogue about race. I didn’t think it applied to me before. That had been my privilege.
And that’s part of the problem.
When Mitike was in preschool, a fifth grader chasing her on the playground yelled at her, “You’re such a dirty, oily-haired n*&@#*!” The principal, sober-faced, and a teacher who had been supervising recess told me this when I arrived that afternoon. They said the fifth grader’s parents claimed they never used such language at home and couldn’t imagine where he’d learned it. The principal expelled the child. She wanted to make it clear that her school tolerated no bigotry, ever.
Shaken and exhausted by the fact that Mitike had been the victim of such abuse, I sat my little curly-haired four-year-old on my lap on the front steps of our house and carefully asked her what she remembered the fifth grader saying. “He called me dirty, Mommy!” she said indignantly. “That’s why he got ’spelled, ’cause he lied! I take a bath every other day!” She didn’t remember the “n” word, because she didn’t understand it. As for the “oily-haired” part of the epithet: that was just true. Every day, we massage Mitike’s scalp with coconut oil. It’s the secret to an itch-free head.
I shared this experience on a blog I was keeping at the time, and one of my aunts wrote, “My love is color-blind! When I see Mitike, I just see a little person I love and adore!”
My aunt’s intention was good. Before I knew Mitike, I might have said something similar. But now I understand that I want people to notice Mitike’s beauty, her colorfully beaded braids, her coffee-brown skin, her slim Ethiopian figure. Her heritage — and those turquoise and purple beads — are part of who she is. Color-blindness is its own brand of ignorant racism. We are different. If we pretend otherwise, we’re faking our interactions with each other. The key is to notice more than just skin color and hair type. I also want people to notice Mitike’s quick smile, her genuine laugh, her gift as a storyteller, her confidence as a leader. I want the world to see her. That fifth grade boy with his ugly words didn’t see her at all; his blindness allowed him to speak violently.
Recently, I read the incredible and important essay “What a Black Woman Wishes Her White Parents Knew” by Mariama Lockington, a black woman adopted by white parents and raised in Denver in the 1980s. She’s angry, now: her parents pretended race didn’t matter, and so they didn’t acknowledge her ongoing reality, which was that race mattered quite a bit, in every moment of her life. She felt crazy, as if her perception of the world was false. Addressing her parents, Lockington writes, “Maybe you think your silence is better than fumbling awkwardly through uncomfortable realities. It’s not. I am a black, queer woman in America, I am your daughter, and I am always in danger.” She insists that by refusing to openly discuss oppression, her parents “erase” her. Lockington’s essay broke my heart. I want Mitike to feel she can talk to us about anything she experiences in her difference; I want her to feel visible – never erased.
Many of the comments on Lockington’s essay are defensive and angry. People are uncomfortable. Privileged, they want to choose not to talk about race. They want Lockington – and Mitike – to just express gratitude to their white families for raising them, as if raising them in white America eliminated all difficulty for them. They don’t want to see that my daughter – beautiful, black – hears about race differently than they do: in every news story about another police shooting of a brown-skinned person, in every racial slur directed toward one of Obama’s daughters, in every bigoted comment Trump’s supporters make, in every statistic about people of color in poverty.
I often remember a day in one of my high school English classes, when we had just begun reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I asked the students to freewrite about the “n” word and how they felt about its presence in the novel. In the ensuing discussion, a white student argued, with annoyance, that the word didn’t matter and it was a waste of time to discuss it. Many other students chimed in to agree, until an African American boy raised his hand. “Look,” he told the class. “The word hurts. It matters to me in a way you can’t get. Until it stops mattering that much to me, it’s got to keep mattering to you.”
What I know: Starbucks was right. We need to hold more dialogue about race. All of us. It’s not comfortable, which is exactly why we need to sit ourselves down in those black leather chairs. Some of us, like Mitike and Mariama Lockington, need to do more talking. Others of us need to start listening.
In her whole life that our nine-year-old daughter Mitike can remember until this year, America has officially embraced hope and progress.
After all, just the day before I brought her home from Ethiopia on August 29, 2008, the Democratic National Convention in Denver nominated Barack Obama as the nation’s first African American presidential candidate. On election night that November, a group of us gathered at a neighbor’s house to watch the results and bite our nails—and when CNN called the election for Obama, we all grabbed spoons and pots and pans and marched jubilantly around our chilly Alaska block, chanting, little one-year-old Mitike happily in the lead, shouting, “Obama! Obama! Obama!” in her Amharic accent.
And because she has been immersed in this kind of progress since the first day she arrived in America, Mitike assumes it is a basic quality of our nation. When Hillary Clinton accepted the nomination from the DNC on July 28 last month, Mitike peered at me and Meredith and asked, “Why are you crying?” We stumbled to explain how incredible this step forward is for our country, to finally have a woman candidate for president. I mumbled something about 1920, Susan B. Anthony, 235 years since Abigail Adams. Meredith tried to explain how the 2016 DNC, with its uplifting of people with disabilities, LGBTQ people, women, the poor, and immigrants, embodied and celebrated the message we long to hear about the United States of America: that in this nation, we work to move closer and closer to increasing the opportunities for all people, because we are stronger and better when we work together. Mitike listened to our muddled emotional explanation and then shrugged. “Moms. That’s just the way America is.”
Of course, I’m grateful that our daughter takes for granted that her adopted country is good, and that it will continue to move forward toward the “more perfect union” for which those wise (and flawed!) writers of the Constitution hoped. But I’m also filled with fear about the future our country could tip into in November. I fear the racist, homophobic, xenophobic, misogynist rhetoric of Donald Trump and his supporters. I fear that the country our daughter believes she knows will fail her.
We Americans find ourselves in a dangerous moment, stretched painfully between what some of us hope our country could be and what Donald J. Trump wants our country to become. As First Lady Michelle Obama proclaimed in her eloquent speech on July 26: “[This election] is about who will have the power to shape our children for the next four or eight years of their lives.” The question has become not a question of policy but a question of whether we teach our children about progress and love, or about divisive hate.What is at stake in this presidential election is not Mitike’s formation. At nine, she believes wholeheartedly that the world requires us to be kind and lovingly accepting of those who are different in any way from us. She trusts that a nation, like a person, is simultaneously fallible and tasked with the responsibility to improve. For eight of her nine years, she has watched and listened (an avid fan of NPR, which I play while I cook dinner) as President Obama has wrestled with immigration, Guantanamo, Osama bin Laden, drone strikes, the auto industry, equal pay for women, police brutality, race, same-sex marriage. Obama has not always made (or been allowed to make) the decisions I wanted him to, but—while my child watched, learning—he worked to lead our nation in the direction of progress.
Meredith and I have protected Mitike from many of the ugliest of our nation’s weeping wounds: the details of the Sandy Hook massacre, for example; or the racist comments hurled at Malia Obama online when she announced her acceptance into Harvard last May. I don’t want Mitike to feel that afraid. But every day Trump says or does something more offensive, or proclaims his cavalier apathy toward world affairs, every day his supporters seethe with vitriol toward Obama and anyone else who isn’t a white English man with roots in colonial America, it becomes harder and harder to protect Mitike (and ourselves) from fear.
However, of this I’m certain: if we fall into fear and let our children tremble, we won’t even need to hold the election this coming November. Of course FDR was right: we must fear fear itself most. It is our fear that will defeat us.
So I remind myself: our little girl has grown up believing that America stands for progress, so now is the time we model for her that light, as the prophet said, still shines in the darkness. Mitike and I spent an entire afternoon registering voters in a park here in Denver. On the weekends, we hike in our beautiful mountains and we spend time with our family, trying to talk more about hope and progress than about fear. Every day, Meredith works in her private psychology practice to help people find peace in their lives, and I drive to a high school to teach teenagers how to express themselves and advocate for themselves in writing. And Mitike watches. We chant what Michelle Obama said she teaches her girls: when others go low, we go high. I remind Mitike (and Meredith, and myself) that no matter what happens in November, the general direction of this nation is progress. Just look at how far we’ve come.
We can’t afford to take for granted how far this country has come. This is not the time to be afraid, but the time to act, to vote (as President Obama said, “Don’t boo, vote”), to stand up and speak for what (and who) matters, to declare our belief that our nation will continue to progress toward a more inclusive and more just place for all Americans of every kind.