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.
What is at stake in this election is not who Mitike becomes, but whether she will be safe in her own country—and whether we will be. What is at stake is how America treats Mitike as a person of color and as an immigrant and as a female, and whether her friends at school—many of them refugees, some of them Muslim—will be treated with the respect and given the rights every person in America deserves. What is at stake is whether her mothers’ marriage to each other will continue to be honored as legal, and whether all of us will continue to be able to write and speak freely in this nation without fear of repercussion. What is at stake is whether America will fall prey to its own shadows—like the seething racism that prompts some citizens to call their president unspeakable names, or like the terrifying misogyny that allows Trump to dismiss his vile, derogatory behavior toward women as “locker room talk”—and thus endanger the entire world.
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.
That’s what America is, right?