I was born in Britain at the tail end of the Thatcher era. My mother was a nurse, my father an accountant, and we moved from London to a suburban part of Essex just after I came along.
There’s a lot I don’t remember about my childhood. I don’t remember any specific toys I liked or what my favorite meal was. I can’t remember the color of my first bike or how old I was when I first learned to ride it. What I lack in specifics, however, I make up for in the memory of how certain things felt: the pride when our neighbor, David, let go of the back of my saddle and I cycled on two wheels by myself, feeling the wind brush sharply past my cheeks. The memory is only a split second long, but it is powerful.
I can’t tell you when I first heard the phrase “playing the race card,” or even when I first came to understand its meaning as a black child growing up in a predominantly white area. What I do remember vividly, though, is what it felt like. As an adult, the only comparable feeling is the frustration of being unable to articulate a point or argument because you are up against someone who is more confident—or at least louder—than you are. They aren’t necessarily right, but you have no choice but to back down anyway, because you’ll never be able to convince them to see your side.
In my teens and twenties, I feared speaking out about how I really felt in certain situations, worried about being branded as “playing the race card.” I didn’t want to be seen as difficult or angry—I just wanted to keep my head down and blend in. The problem is, as a black, female, second-generation Muslim growing up in post 9–11 and 7–7 Britain, blending in was never going to be possible. That’s when I really started to notice how the “race card” was being used to silence valid and legitimate voices.
In January this year, the London mayoral battle started to get pretty messy, with Conservative MP Zac Goldsmith accusing Labour’s Sadiq Khan of “playing the race card.” In terms of my personal vote, I’m not gravitating toward either candidate. I’m not even convinced that any one person is enough to be the mayor of London. If it were up to me, there would be a group of at least four people with separate areas of expertise who could each bring something different to the table—like the Power Rangers, or the kids from Captain Planet. That said, the use of the phrase awoke a frustration in me that had remained dormant for many years.
The idea of a “race card” suggests a privilege. The race card is a go-to argument that everyone who considers themselves an ethnic minority is free to pull out of their pocket and play whenever they need—a theoretical free pass to victory.
Doctor: What kind is it?
Midwife: It’s a brown baby girl, doctor. Parents are Muslims.
Doctor: A brown Muslim girl? Oh dear, best give her two race cards then. She’ll need them.
But this isn’t what the phrase has always meant. Historically, “playing the race card” meant to pander politically to racists. The race card was a political trump card that could beat all others.
Following an influx of immigrants into the UK in the 50s and 60s, there was known to be a degree of racist discontent amongst the predominantly white indigenous population [and] there was an informal gentlemen’s agreement not to benefit electorally by pandering to this racist element. Peter Griffiths, the Conservative candidate for the parliamentary seat of Smethwick in the 1964 General Election, was accused of using the slogan, ‘If you want a n****r neighbour – vote Labour’, in an attempt to capitalise on the electorate’s fears of being ‘swamped’ by immigrants. Later, once the phrase ‘play the race card’ had become part of the language in the 80s, commentators wrote pieces suggesting that Griffiths ‘played the race card’ in order to get elected.
So to play the race card means both “to attempt to gain advantage in an election by pandering to the electorate’s racism” and “to attempt to gain advantage by drawing attention to one’s race.” There is reversal suggested here: what used to be the racist’s tool has become the ethnic minority’s asset.
What the two meanings have in common is the idea that the race card trumps all arguments and shuts down debate. Whoever holds the race card wins.
Yet who really wins, in this day and age, when one person accuses another of playing the race card? The person who does so effectively removes the possibility of debate by dismissing and invalidating the other party’s opinion. When we remove the opportunity for debate, we substantially minimize the opportunity for understanding—and when we are unwilling to understand each other, we become separated.
In the past, we’re told, white politicians played the race card, pandering to racism as a way of shutting down their opponents’ arguments. Today we are to understand that people of color hold and play race cards of their own—but in fact it is the accusation, not the “card,” that holds all the power.
My frustration at Zac Goldsmith’s words extends so much further than it being a turn of phrase that irks me. These are not words that can be ignored and brushed off: these are words that are being used every day to ignore and silence people who are attempting to voice their frustrations.
I’m now thirty years old, and I’ve been trying for years to put into words how and why race is such a huge deal to people of color like me. The closest I’ve come is this: being able to exist and not have to think about race issues is a privilege. I always felt that until I could say something helpful, different, and poignant on the subject, I may as well keep quiet. The trouble with this “race card” thing is, I just can’t sit quietly while a prominent public figure perpetuates a term whose use results in people being shut down—people like me, who are people like everyone else, whose thoughts and feelings are equally valid. People like me, who have grown up experiencing first- and second-hand what it actually feels like to exist as a minority in a world where the playing field between those who are white and people of color is not level.
To me, the “race card” is not a card at all. A mere card couldn’t possibly fit all of the reasons I need to challenge and call out racism. My reasons for speaking out span the three continents that form a part of me and hundreds of years of colonialism, immigration, and experience. My race card is not a card: it’s the lives of my ancestors distilled into speckles of my genetic makeup. I’ve accumulated a “race book” full of experience, of bittersweet memories and difficult-to-process feelings, and I stand ready to explain to anyone willing to listen why I will no longer sit down and accept the dismissal embedded in this phrase.
Next time I’m accused of playing the card, I’m throwing down the book.
In October of 2004, my mom picked me up from my college dorm and drove me about twenty miles up Interstate 79 to Edinboro, Pennsylvania, where we pulled into one of those perfect, Desperate Housewives-type neighborhoods with the immaculate lawns and minimalist traditional houses just a few inches too close together.
We parked in the street in front of one of these houses; the driveway was too packed with minivans and station wagons for us to fit. Also, I got the impression that my mom didn’t want to be trapped. If she felt the need to flee, street parking would enable us to up and go without any awkward car shuffling.
My mom had brought along four grocery store bags filled with photographs and memorabilia from our recent vacation to England, and we hauled them up the walk to the front door, which was opened pre-knock by a smiling woman in a red tracksuit and white athletic socks. Her grip on the doorframe made it look as if she’d slid to a stop Risky Business-style.
“Ginny! Hey girl!” this woman said to my mom, who was not a “Hey girl!” type of woman. She turned to me and smiled. “You must be Mike. I’m Mrs. Costa. Come on in!”
We followed her into her perfect home. The color scheme was light blue and cream, and the walls were adorned with photographs of a perfect family unit. She advised us to remove our shoes and led us to a door on the far side of her open-plan kitchen. We descended a set of stairs and emerged into Scrapbooking Narnia.
My mom and I gazed up at the shelf-lined walls like Belle in the Beast’s library, dazzled by rows upon rows of glittering books, sticker packs, paper sets, and collections of colorfully gripped razor blades arrayed on surgical trays.
Rows of tables were arranged in the center of the basement, accessorized with clear plastic discard bins hanging from the edges. About a dozen middle-aged women were seated at the tables, gabbing and crafting like Santa’s elves while sipping wine coolers.
We introduced ourselves and joined them at the tables, where Mrs. Costa proceeded to take us through the basics of scrapbooking. She started with the essentials: tape runners, corner cutters, die-cuts, stickers, journal boxes, paper, paper, more paper, and of course, scrapbooks. Then she showed us how to add pages to scrapbooks and how to tape paper onto the pages. We learned that nearly any mistake could be corrected with the right combination of patience, tape, and the magical fix-it tool (which is basically a piece of plastic – rounded on one end and pointed on the other – that allows for the scraping up and pressing down of tape and stickers). She showed us the best way to edit photos, both for page aesthetics and for the photos themselves, enabling us to crop bad angles, cover unwanted rumples with stickers, and make our complexions dazzling with the right color of mat.
Thus instructed, we got to work. As we did, Mrs. Costa brought my mom a wine cooler and me a Diet Coke, and we casually chatted with the other scrapbookers. Mrs. Costa herself didn’t scrapbook; instead she bopped around, helping to cut photos, choose stickers, cover pages in protective plastic, or offer any other scrapbooking assist. The majority of the other ladies were working on books about genealogy or Disney World, and generously provided us with tips and examples.
Though the typical scrapbook looks like it’s constructed page by page, the reality is that a lot of work should be done before the first photo is placed. Photos should be organized into the order that they will appear in the book, then grouped by potential page, then cropped. Paper for backgrounds needs to be pre-chosen, particularly if you plan on matting your photos before actually putting them into the book. (You should.) Supporting materials – brochures, menus, stickers, journal boxes, etc. – need to be chosen ahead of time and also cropped and/or shaped.
This all felt very overwhelming the first time. My mom and I were slow, careful croppers. We obsessed over potential color schemes, eventually choosing pink and green to accentuate the colors we’d experienced in English gardens. We looked around at the other scrapbookers’ immaculate pages, so vivid that I could practically feel It’s a Small World’s artificial river lapping at our feet, and felt jealous and inadequate.
Despite the friendly atmosphere, I felt out of place and uncomfortable. On the one hand, I was a nineteen-year-old boy in a group of scrapbooking forty-plus women. An obviously gay teenager in the heart of Republican Americana. What could be more traditional than women gathered around the crafting table? And there I was, an interloper, the opposite of traditional, bringing the stain of maleness (the double stain of male-on-maleness) to this dainty female gathering.
On the other hand, scrapbooking represented everything that a formative gay male was supposed to reject. Online dating sites were filled with guys looking for masculine guys only. Gays were supposed to be breaking stereotypes, doing manly things, not picking out stickers with our moms.
But as we cut pictures and listened to stories about football games, unbelievable Disney deals, and local politics, a Zen-like relaxation overtook me. Every group of matted photos was an individual memory, curated by my mother and me for an audience of ourselves.
We went back the next week, and as we progressed from cropping and organizing to placing background paper and arranging our pages, my feelings of relaxation turned to subtle joy. Part of this was the simple pleasure of being in a group whose only connection was shared creative expression.
But more than that, the joy began to flow from the scrapbook itself. It started as a stirring in my stomach, a giddy excitement achieved by trimming what had mostly been a lousy day trip to Dover into a beautiful one-page ode to the city’s famous white cliffs. Eventually every piece of our trip fit into the book like a piece of our own intricate jigsaw.
That giddiness grew as we found the perfect places to stick the menus, brochures, business cards, and even coins that we’d squirreled away on our trip. Scrapbooking solved some sort of organizational compulsion that I didn’t even know I’d possessed, and the ability to make the useless useful was intoxicating.
When I look at that English scrapbook now, it’s hard to see beyond the book’s flaws. It is a twelve-inch-by-twelve-inch pale green canvas book with a simple metal plaque adorning the front cover. The plaque consists of reliefs of dainty pink and yellow flowers. Very English. It opens to a garish title page, dominated by laser-cut, doily-like stick-on letters spelling out “ENGLAND” across the top. Beneath, a cutout from a brochure showing a rail map of Great Britain is sandwiched between bright red words – “Mike” on the left and “Mom” on the right. All of this lay atop a Pepto-pink background and surrounded by stickers of airplanes, flowers, hedgehogs, and, strangely, a giant watermill.
Our stickers are placed unevenly, we failed to mat about half of the photos, and we stuck our journal boxes in the book before we did the actual journaling, which forced us to squeeze too much or stretch too little text within them.
Despite those flaws, I have nothing but appreciation for the book, and that’s because of what isn’t physically within it. The invisible feelings and details that aren’t on the pages but nevertheless still live inside the scrapbook. There is something about scrapbooking a moment that traps the events and details around that point in time. I don’t know whether or not those details are the truth or in fact just another facet of the scrapbooking illusion, but every page still takes me back into who I was then.
The first picture in this first scrapbook is of me, looking relaxed and comfortable in my own skin, wearing sunglasses and leaning against the doorframe of the hotel my mom and I stayed at for our first few days in England. The picture itself isn’t that significant outside of enabling us to remember the name of The Ridgemount Hotel. Instead, the picture is significant because the person in the photo didn’t exist.
At nineteen I was horribly self-conscious. I was tormented by a combination the fear that came with growing up gay in a rural area and the insecurity of an effeminate, formerly obese teenager. I wasn’t someone who could “pass” for straight, and I wasn’t comfortable in my own skin.
But this picture on the first page is the first I can recall of myself looking relaxed and at ease. I didn’t even realize that I’d felt so different until we began creating the scrapbook and I saw myself in those photographs and relived the memories.
Scrapbooking revealed to me that I’d felt like my real, true self in London. This made sense – it was a place where I could be myself in public without attracting unwanted attention. Later, I would move to London for this very reason.
Scrapbooking is like a Ouija board for nostalgia. Usually this ethereal force that alternately warms and stabs our hearts, nostalgia is harnessed by scrapbooking into a kind of total recall of events. To an outsider, a beautifully constructed scrapbook might look like a Photoshopped version of events — a postcard memory. But scrapbooking allows for the opposite, at least in my experience. The process of scrapbooking allows me to fully reflect on every angle of an experience.
This reflection is hard. Like most LGBTQIA+ people, I have a lot of pain in my past. Pain suffered at the hands of bullies, of society, and of myself. Pain that often made very little sense at the time of its infliction. This is where scrapbooking can help. It allows for reflection to be coupled with action. The act of sorting through memories, painful or not, is empowering. It may seem symbolic, but it’s more than that because an actual document — an artefact – is being created in the process.
For example, I have a scrapbook my time spent studying abroad in northeast Australia, one of the most beautiful places in the world. However, this part of Australia was also at the time quite socially conservative, and gay activity was restricted to the Internet and a few gay clubs. In building my scrapbook I thought back to hurled slurs, having my boyfriend (who was closeted) deny my existence, being called “Gay Mike” by everyone, including my closest friends.
Unlike my trip to England, I did not feel at home in Australia. Scrapbooking, though, allowed me to control how I remembered Australia. It may sound as if I’m putting a rose tint on the past. But pain can’t be erased with the cropping of a photograph or the addition of stickers. Pain, shame, fear, and embarrassment are all tattooed on my skin. But scrapbooking my Australian experience allowed me to declare what I wanted to take away from Australia. I fell in love. I was independent for the first time. The nature was beautiful and I met some of the best people I’ve ever known. I frolicked on some of the world’s most beautiful beaches and saw some of the world’s weirdest animals. My brother visited, and we had an absolute blast.
Those are the things in my Australian scrapbook, and I look back on that time with joy. I don’t forget any of the bad things, but my scrapbook has allowed me to keep those bad memories at bay, to prevent them from smothering the good ones.
Beyond what scrapbooking gave me mentally, it had tangible benefits as well. The actual skills associated with scrapbooking have aided me countless times in my career, most significantly in the field of advertising.
Work took me around the world, and I spent 2007 to 2011 living in London, Johannesburg, Cape Town, and Hong Kong. In the fall of 2011, my husband and I made the decision to move to the United States, specifically to New York. I just had to find a job. New York City’s advertising field is notoriously competitive and overflowing with eager job hunters with endless reserves of creativity and technical skills.
I arranged a series of interviews and arrived in New York from Hong Kong with a briefcase full of résumés and a portfolio of great international clients. However, it felt like something was missing. When I got to my hotel in Manhattan, it dawned on me what I could do to set myself apart. I called my mother and had her run to Mrs. Costa’s and get me the shiniest scrapbook she could find. She overnighted it to me along with a heap of supplies. Luckily I’d given myself an extra day to recover from jetlag before my interviews, and as soon as my things arrived, I set up shop in the hotel’s business center, printing, cropping, and sticking my working life into a silver, star-adorned scrapbook.
I didn’t know whether I would be successful, but I was relatively sure that no other candidate for a senior role in a New York advertising job would have a scrapbooked résumé. One of the lessons that scrapbooking had given me over the years was that personal moments count far more in a scrapbook than the generic, no matter how stunning that generic moment was. As beautiful as the Eiffel Tower is, everyone has seen a picture of it. Scrapbooks are for showing yourself posing with a stranger in front of the Eiffel Tower, eating a dozen croissants, or looking awkward in a beret.
So I focused my scrapbook résumé on the personal. I had my education, agency experience, and client list, of course. But I also showed myself sitting fireside with my boss on retreat in South Africa’s Karoo desert and eating spicy soup on a business trip to Shanghai. I included pictures of myself running the London Marathon and posing with friend on Hong Kong’s Avenue of Stars.
I got the job and took that scrapbooking experience to the agency with me, advising colleagues on how to creatively present work to clients and how to pitch for new ones. And I kept scrapbooking for myself, which helped me not only to remember what I loved about my life but helped me reflect on what I didn’t.
Which is also how I ended up leaving advertising. In focusing my scrapbook résumé on the personal, I also identified what it was that I loved about my job. I loved the travel and the people, the new experiences. What I didn’t love was the work. In looking back at the scrapbook now, the signs are all there. I reflected on educational experiences warmly and thoroughly and skipped over entire years of actual work experience. Most tellingly, I included a page in my scrapbook about how I dreamed of being an author. Who applies to a job by telling potential employers they want to be something else?
Eventually, I left advertising and went back to school to be a writer. I now teach, too, which is another area where scrapbooking knowledge proves to be a helpful arrow in my quiver, though a young male teacher telling a group of millennials that he scrapbooks is also a recipe for instant criticism.
Which doesn’t bother me much. In learning to scrapbook, I learned to focus on what’s really important. Sometimes what’s really important is cropping your midsection or ex-boyfriend out of photos. Sometimes it’s adding a hundred stickers to a page to emphasize the importance of an event. Sometimes it’s holding on to the smallest memento of a person or place. And sometimes it’s choosing to let something go.
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.
When I close my eyes, I stand trembling on the deck of a ship that has just arrived in New Orleans, Louisiana, United States. It is 1881, and my hands shake because the journey across the Atlantic was impossibly rough: seasickness, an overcrowded steerage, rampant head lice and rats, inadequate toilet facilities and tainted water. But we had to come, Wulff and I. In Germany, we would have been forced to give up our small farm and move to the city to work in grim factories, but here in America, Wulff said, we could build good lives again. Here in America, in spite of political parties that claim we new German immigrants are dangerous threats to American values and ideals, we can build a secure house, plant seeds in fertile soil, and send our children to school. America has promised us all of that. It is our refuge now.
When I open my eyes, it is 2017 and I stand in a classroom in Denver, facing thirty seniors—mostly immigrants—who bend their heads over notebooks, writing. They live in an America that has abruptly forgotten its best message: Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. They live in an America where executive orders demand border walls and travel bans, where self-proclaimed white “nationalists” whisper in the president’s ear, and fear seethes in every turn of rhetoric.
We are all refugees.
As the great-great-granddaughter of Greta and Wulff, I turn to my students and I choose to listen.
I listen to Tesfay, who fled Eritrea to a refugee camp in Ethiopia when he was twelve, fearing for his safety in a country that forcibly conscripts young boys and men into the military.
Tesfay, who arrived in the US alone in 2013, regards his new life with deep brown eyes that have seen too much. In his quiet voice, he speaks of barbed wire, desert crossings, thirst, his cold fear. Friends of his have died attempting the Mediterranean crossing into Europe. Now he sits in an American high school classroom, focusing on the education that propelled him to survive. He sighs when I ask him what he wishes he could tell President Trump. “He needs to understand the story of refugees,” Tesfay says. “He needs to interact with people who are from different countries, which will make him open minded to different people. I wish everyone understood what people go through to get here, and what contributions they are making to this country.” He waits, then glances down at his homework. Back to work.
I listen to Kashindi, who arrived in the US on a rainy day in June of 2010 after living for his first thirteen years in a refugee camp in Tanzania. Kashindi’s mother fled the Congo when Uganda and Rwanda invaded and killed thousands of people.
The refugee camp was safer, but Kashindi remembers they were “held like prisoners.” He says: “We weren’t allowed to leave the camp, or go visit family members in different camps. We were surrounded by huge fences, we were like caged birds.” When Kashindi and his mother were selected by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to come to the US, they both imagined the United States as a kind of heaven, a place where the sky would rain money, where everyone was free and safe and friendly. “We ate, drank, and slept thinking about America,” Kashindi remembers. It hasn’t been the way he imagined, but it’s far better than the camp in Tanzania. Kashindi strides down the hallway to my class in his JROTC uniform, flashes me a grin, thanks me for teaching him today. “Greatness is not where you stand now, but in what direction you’re moving,” he says.
I listen to Nasra Yusuf.
In her black khimar (a head covering silkier and lighter than a hijab) with its green swirling polka dots, her multicolored print sweater, her black and turquoise striped skirt, her glasses with a Malcolm X–darkened top edge, she strikes a revolutionary stance—even the safety pin that secures the khimar beneath her chin seems a bold protest. Nasra Yusuf was born in Somalia, but her family fled to Uganda when she was a few months old—war had broken out, and “it was not safe anywhere,” she says. “We didn’t know where it was safe and where it wasn’t.”
Nasra Yusuf was six when she arrived in America. She imagined it would be a very crowded place where people constantly talked to each other, “just like our villages back home, where everyone is talking, giving each other food.” But for such a populated place, America seemed weirdly empty and quiet: “Here everyone is in their houses. They don’t even go onto the sidewalk. I didn’t expect that.” It was not welcoming, either, in spite of all the resources and opportunities it offered her family. For Nasra Yusuf, America is “a place where everybody’s categorized, and everybody belongs to a certain community, and nobody goes beyond that.” She’s certain that if everyone in America could just slow down long enough to see each other, we could create more understanding. She lifts her chin and shakes her head a little. “Instead of saying, ‘oh, this person’s Muslim, that person’s gay,’ they would see people as people they could connect to.”
I listen to Mohammed.
In 2013, at age seventeen, he emigrated to America from Iraq with his parents and his three younger brothers. They came, Mohammed explains, because: “The terrorists threatened us. My father was working security with a U.S. company in Basra, but we began to feel insecure and scared. We hoped to find a good education and a good future.” Mohammed feels America is exactly what he thought it would be, though it’s been difficult to master speaking and writing English. He thinks in Arabic and then works to translate his thoughts so English speakers can understand. By nature, he is soft-spoken, polite, tall and slender, with a shy smile. When I ask Mohammed what he wishes President Trump knew about immigrants, he hesitates, thinking. Finally, he says, “He should know that people are coming for an education and a better life, and to have a good future. Some people want to be terrorists, and they don’t want to be good, but most want to be good and have a better life. To get into America, we had to move from Iraq to Syria, then we stayed in Syria seven years. Two of those years, we had war in Syria. Then we had to do interviews and lots of papers. If people knew how much we had to do to prove we want a better life, they would help us and support us.” Mohammed does not want to comment on the recent travel ban. “We are here for a better life,” he repeats.
I listen to Ehywapaw, who was nine when she came to America from a Thai refugee camp, where she and her family, all members of the persecuted Karen ethnic group, had taken refuge.
Ehywapaw says, “My parents brought us here to get an education and a better life and resources. Back [in Thailand], we didn’t have a good education, and we had to work really low-paid jobs. Here there was better opportunity for us.” Ehywapaw hesitates. She is quiet in class, but she is an impeccable student and a highly respected Cadet Captain in the JROTC. “If I’d stayed [in the Thai camp],” she explains, “I think I would be married already. I would be working, and I would not finish school.” Here in America, Ehywapaw will do far more than just finish high school. She plans to study social work in college, to help newcomer immigrants like herself and her family. “I wish Donald Trump knew that I’m not a terrorist,” she says. “We just want a better opportunity. I’m not a bad person.” She smiles, amusement crinkling the corners of her eyes.
And I listen to Yoselyn, who came to America from Honduras in 2006, at the age of eight, all by herself.
Her mother had already made her way illegally into California and now wanted her daughter to join her. Yoselyn remembers her mother said she was going to pay someone to bring her north. If that didn’t work, her mother told her, she would have her come on a plane. Instead, Yoselyn says, “I ended up going all by myself. We went to Guatemala, and this guy came and picked me up. We were on a bus and the guy told me to go to sleep. He said he would tell an officer that I was his daughter and these were my papers. I didn’t feel scared. I just felt sad that I had to leave my nana, who was raising me.”
Yoselyn says she wishes people who are against DACA and who are so critical of undocumented immigrants would think about the fact that people come to the US for many reasons, but that “people who come here when they’re young, we don’t have an option.” But it was good she had come, Yoselyn says. If her mom hadn’t paid for her journey north, Yoselyn would have struggled to stay safe and get an education in Honduras. She ducks her head when I ask her if she’s glad she’s in the United States now. “I don’t want to be mean,” she says, examining a strand of red hair between her fingers, “but I want to be in Honduras. I miss going to the beaches.” She smiles wistfully and gazes out the window, where snowflakes fall steadily from a gray Colorado sky.
I listen to my students’ stories. And I ask you, before you make any judgment, to listen, too.
Before you support any law, listen. Before you blindly acquiesce to any ban, to any wall, to any order: listen. These students—Yoselyn, Ehywapaw, Mohammed, Nasra Yusuf, Kashindi and Tesfay—are six of the thousands who have come seeking refuge in the US in the past years. They have sought refuge from controlling governments, unsafe environments, religious persecution, wars, lack of opportunity. And they arrived in a country that promised the opposite of all of that. A democratic government. Secure, sunny neighborhoods. Religious freedom and freedom of expression. Safety. Free and equitable education.
They came seeking the refuge my great-great-grandparents, Wulff and Greta, came seeking. It has long been America’s promise
And yet. Every day of Trump’s presidency, we risk becoming more like the countries these students—and immigrants like Wulff and Greta—have fled
Listen. Listen, and then keep calling your senators, and keep reading, and keep thinking critically about what is true and what is not. Make it your goal to keep this country the nation refugees have dreamed for centuries—and not a country we have to flee.
All names of students have been changed to protect their privacy.
It’s 1864. In the U.S. Hall of the House of Representatives, a gathered group of congressmen, weary from the bloody Civil War and despairing their fractured nation, pauses to listen to a twenty-two-year-old Quaker named Anna Elizabeth Dickinson.
Dickinson steps to the podium, demure, clad in a conservative high-collared black dress. The men wait in impatient silence. Someone clears his throat. But then Dickinson raises her gray eyes to the crowd, and she begins to speak, and her voice is like a raised sword in battle, her plea for abolition a resounding heartbeat the tired men need so sorely that they rise in standing ovation at her concluding words.
She was called “America’s Joan of Arc.” The famous radical abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison had been printing her words since she was fourteen, and the writer Mark Twain praised her: “She talks fast, uses no notes what ever [sic], never hesitates for a word, always gets the right word in the right place, and has the most perfect confidence in herself.”
Thousands flocked to hear her speak against slavery and for the rights of African Americans and women. Dickinson’s passionate intensity—her belief in the rights of all, in the forward progress of our hearts—was what the nation desperately needed.
And I believe—faced with Trump, unconscionable gun violence, police brutality, climate change, decade-long wars, xenophobia and homophobia and racism—our nation needs to hear from Dickinson again. Right now, we need both the living and the dead to remind us that hope is not lost, that our words are powerful, that the people who hear us and read us may be moved to take action in the direction of human rights. But how can someone like Anna Dickinson, who died in 1932, speak to us at all?
She whispers from the historical archive. In the June 27 New Yorkerarticle “The Woman Card,” journalist Jill Lepore reveals the surprisingly feminist origins of the Republican Party, noting, “One of the Party’s most popular and best-paid speakers was Anna Dickinson.” But Lepore offers Dickinson only as a nondescript famous woman who helped lead the nascent Republicans. In that brief historical note, Dickinson’s sword-wielding power of speech remains with her dust. How can I actually resurrect her, now that we need her?
Historical fiction. Breathe air into Dickinson’s lungs again. Paint her story around her; let her speak again; let the fragments of her real correspondence and her speech transcripts be cornerstones of a story with flesh and bone and blood; research costume and event and dialect so that Civil War-era Philadelphia—and its great Quaker orator—nearly exists again. In good historical fiction, we slip into the spirit of a different time and then emerge knowing that if real people once took incredible and brave action like that, we can, too. Good historical fiction slaps us awake: “Go. Now!”
But it’s still not enough. Historical fiction, bound to a certain time and place, has to report, like a responsible journalist. History, whether it’s etched in stone or whispered in shadow, requires a certain telling. There are rules.
Anna Dickinson lives the same life there, on repeat: wildly famous as an abolitionist, then scrambling after the Civil War to cling to that fame. She moved powerful men with her words on abolition, but she could not move her society to approve of her ardent belief in the equality of all, male and female, white and black. She could not convince her society to bless her romantic relationships with women, or her proclivity for wearing pants and climbing every high mountain she could, or her desire to take male roles on the theatrical stage. She raised her sword and shouted for everyone to follow her into battle, but few actually did. When her own sister had her committed to a mental institution in 1891 (when Dickinson was forty-nine), she calmly hired lawyers to prove her sanity, exited the asylum, and then retreated to live in bitter isolation for her last forty years.
As historical fiction, Dickinson’s story is probably better left to a single sentence in a New Yorker article. Maybe that is why no one has written it. The story of a bitter ninety-year-old lesbian dying in obscurity does not inspire us for our own time.
But what if there is a different way to tell stories like Dickinson’s? In these past few years, I’ve been experimenting with hybrid forms, thanks mostly to my reading of authors like Jeanette Winterson, Rebecca Brown, Eleni Sikelianos, Michael Ondaatje, Julio Cortazar. I am primarily an essayist, but my essays sometimes look like poems or short stories or lists. What matters is the story, and the reader and the writer and the character who are transformed by it.
Last summer at Ghost Ranch, New Mexico, I heard renowned author Maxine Hong Kingston wonder whether it is possible that the writing we do now, in this time, could help heal the people who came before us. I wonder. Could I, by writing Anna’s story in a bending and crossing of genres and times, help her become the woman she longed to become? Could her life arc not to a mental institution but to what she could never have imagined in 1891? Could she ride into battle with the real Joan of Arc in 1430? Could she emerge in 2016?
What if I stepped out of time, holding Miss Dickinson’s hand?
In the past year and a half, I’ve written over a hundred pages about Anna Dickinson: notes from history books and biographies and Civil War websites, fragments of poems, pieces of essays, imagined moments, letters addressed to her, blank pages with captions for photographs that do not exist. In the early mornings when I write, I’m as likely to work on “the Dickinson stuff” as I am to work on my essays or my monthly column. It’s a book: I know that much. I also know it’s a book others need to read in this chaotic time. But what genre will this book be? In what category will it fit? None. Several. Genre is irrelevant. Anna Dickinson needs to be written back into the now, and I’m the conduit. Like Anna, this book won’t fit into any categories.
This month, I plan to disappear into the Colorado mountains and work on the Anna Dickinson book until I’ve finished a complete draft. I’ve rented a cabin with a view of Mount Lady Washington, the peak the Hayden Survey named after Dickinson when she accompanied them up neighboring Long’s Peak. I’ll hike in the mornings, then work in the afternoons and evenings.
I don’t know where this work will lead me, but I know I want Anna to wake up, like Woolf’s Orlando, and find herself in a new time, with new possibilities for changing our world.
Anna Dickinson was not a man. She could not wear pants or shirts that did not constrict her breath. She could not own property or inherit money or vote in any election. She could not marry a woman she loved.
She was not beautiful. She was not dainty and she was not gentle. Her eyebrows were not fine and her nose was not small. When she stood to speak, her voice was never soft. On her way from climbing Long’s Peak to climbing Pikes Peak, she did not ride inside the train to Colorado Springs, but perched like a goddess on the cattleguard, the wind in her hair.
Anna Dickinson did not love men as lovers and she did not love women as mountain climbing companions. She never slept with a man and she never slept with just one woman. When she wrote love letters to Olive or Susan or Sarah or Lou, she was not shy. She was never satisfied that she had done or seen or heard or loved enough.
Anna Dickinson was not a man. And yet when she spoke against slavery on the Lyceum stage, the newspapers said she was not demure enough to be a woman. When she played Hamlet in New York in 1881, her harshest critic wrote, “We always knew Anna Dickinson was actually a man.”
Once, she wrote to her lover Olive Logan, “Someday, some of us will become so overcome with passion that we will become men, and we will make furious love to our beloved women, and then we shall be married, and live happy forever more.”
Anna. Ms. Dickinson. American Maid of Orleans, bearer of the fleur de lis. I am not a man. I am a woman, and I am your vision.
Anna. If I write your story now, will you hear it one hundred years ago?