I’m not sorry to see 2016 end. The presidential election was brutal. I sense that we’ve all come out of it with a bruised sense of being American, regardless of political affiliation. I don’t anticipate the country will recover anytime soon.
But as I try to sort through my thoughts on what the future portends, I find myself cataloging random moments in my past that remind me of what it means to be an American.
So, instead of sharing an end of year update on what happened to me and my family this year, I’m sharing these – a few random memories of an American kid – that remind of us how far we’ve come, and where we need to go.
Bon Jovi or Aerosmith?
Elementary school gave me my first lesson in democracy. We voted on big and small issues. On warm days, we were asked – do we have class inside, or under the trees outside? At the end of year party, the question was: do we listen to Bon Jovi or Aerosmith? We voted on mostly unimportant issues, but at least we knew we had a choice.
Fireworks and Bermuda Shorts
I grew up in northwest Ohio where the Midwest summers were stunning: big open skies, the colors of the sunsets stretching across the horizon as far as we could see to the right and to the left. The blue-black shadows of small children danced in the moonlight, chasing lightning bugs as the smells and sounds of the evening summer took over: smoke from a grill a few doors down, fried chicken cooking next door, train whistles in the distance and the soft humming of train wheels on railroad tracks, and the fresh night air full of cottonwood, pine, and maple tree.
Every year on the fourth of July, we joined my uncle and his family for fireworks at their country club. I remember clean-cut children wearing plaid Bermuda shorts, brown Eastland shoes, pastel-colored polo shirts and frilly dresses. They ran in circles with sparklers, eventually calming down to claim the laps of moms with perfectly poofed hair and dads with television grins and beer bottles in hand. We all watched the light show with looks of wonder.
Abraham Lincoln is Dead
In second grade, I folded my arms and hid my head in them to cry after the part in the filmstrip where President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. I remember thinking how kind he was for freeing the slaves. In my child’s heart, I felt thankful that the United States wasn’t against black people anymore. It made me think of the time one of the Frederickson kids in the neighborhood told me he couldn’t play with me because I was black (my attempts to explain I wasn’t black fell on deaf ears).
In third grade, I remember the teacher running across the room to turn the volume up on the television after the Challenger space shuttle exploded, our dreams in the great big hope of space exploration dashed in a single instant. She buried her face in her hands, sobbing as her curly brown hair framed her pretty round face.
A small and positive byproduct of that traumatic moment was that I became obsessed with outer space, immersing myself in books like War of the Worlds, The Time Machine, and anything I could find about the planet Mars. In science fiction, the idea of knowing who you are and where you came from was important to getting the point of the story (for a country with so many kinds of people and cultures, it’s no surprise that America’s obsession with outer space and science fiction has persisted through the years). The populism, nationalism, and philosophy of the genre drew me in, even as I thought I was simply enjoying escapist little stories.
The Best Country in the World
In junior high, I gave a speech about tolerance at a peace rally downtown outside of the mayor’s office. I plagiarized some of the phrases from an episode of “Saved by the Bell” that was about treating people equally. I began to learn that America did some horrible things a long time ago to black people…and Native Americans…and Japanese immigrants. But I wasn’t dismayed. A small voice in my head kept telling me, America is the best country in the world. I don’t know where the idea came from, but it was enough to keep moving.
Marx, Smith, and Keynes
As a teenager, I would accompany my mother to her economics class at the University of Toledo where she attended graduate school. I learned about supply and demand and we discussed Marx, Smith, and Keynes. There was an honest and straightforward quality to the discussions that I latched on to. The emphasis on logic, analysis, and critical thinking in that college class and the others I attended when I started college a few years later became a mindset for me, a way of looking at the world that I couldn’t un-do. My future travels to parts of Asia, the Middle East, and Europe, would confirm the distinctly American quality of this way of thinking.
One summer, our mosque took us on a field trip to a Jewish Synagogue in town. The beautiful dark mahogany rows in the congregation hall felt warm and welcoming. Everyone was so kind to us. I learned that Jews began arriving in Toledo as refugees, fleeing World War II and Hitler’s persecution. My adolescent brain was confused – so Jews weren’t like the other white people I knew? From that day onward, a small kinship with the Jewish community grew inside of me. I admired how the community took care of its own, taught its youth about their history, and how it built up the society around it through philanthropy and education. In the words of a family friend (who is also a Muslim immigrant): American Jews built this country in big ways and we owe a lot to them.
Archbishop Óscar Romero
I went to a Catholic high school run by the Sisters of Notre Dame. The religion classes introduced me to people like Óscar Romero, the fourth Archbishop of San Salvador, a vocal defender of human rights and social justice. During senior year, I joined my class in a four-day retreat known as “Kairos,” which allowed for discussions and independent reflection on one’s relationship with self, others, and God. A student leader is chosen by the class to lead the retreat as rector – an honor my classmates gave to me, which to this day is one of my most treasured memories. It made sense that after four years of discussions and debates in religion class about the connections between Islam, Judaism, and Christianity that we would conclude our high school intervention in such a way.
The Stories of Black Folk
I stayed in my hometown for college, where I studied English Literature and Women’s Studies. My professors – acolytes of the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s – read us the poems of feminists like Adrienne Rich and Audre Lorde; assigned the writings of W.E. Dubois; and taught the history of jazz and the deep south. During those years, I learned more about America than I ever knew.
VAX and the Internet
It was a strange time to go digging into America’s past. The world as we knew it was in flux (though we didn’t know it). We used the VAX system on our computers to send messages to fellow students (does anyone else remember this?). In between writing papers on Socrates and Plato, I printed color images from the Internet of my favorite musicians – 10,000 Maniacs, R.E.M., and Sarah McLachlan – to hang them on my bedroom wall for inspiration. I thought it was cool and counterculture to not have a cell phone so I resisted buying one as long as I could – until I could no longer resist.
Then, seemingly, technology became the new American identity. Fully embraced and overwhelming at the same time, it became synonymous with who we were, our productivity, our relationships, and our ability to be informed and aware of the world around us. We thought: so much information, access, and efficiency could only make us better. The rise of technology became inextricably tied to the notion of the American dream itself. Twenty-something college dropouts from middle-class families became billionaires. I loved that America was modern, futuristic, and constantly reinventing itself.
During the September 11th attacks, I peered out of a window in Arlington, Virginia to see long tendrils of smoke connecting the Pentagon to the sky. The day after, as I walked two blocks from the White House, a stranger walked up to me and asked, “Where are you from?” It was a confusing and painful time. For weeks I had nightmares; in a recurring one, a rapidly approaching jumbo jet would appear every time I looked out of my office window. Going places by myself made me nervous. I didn’t want my father to pick me up at the airport anymore when I visited home. Muslim men and airports no longer mixed. It was a new world and in it, we were the enemy, no longer the prized model minority.
But larger than the fear of hate crimes, of discrimination against our families, and of immigration bans was the fear of the unknown – of how Americans would act and treat one another. I channeled that anxiety into years of working in the U.S. government on policies that dismantled and destroyed al Qaeda. The policies weren’t perfect, but we felt like they were the best ones we had during a time of national crisis.
Speaking of national crisis, I stayed up till the very end on election night this year. When I saw Donald Trump walk out to deliver his victory address, I recalled my fears from over fifteen years ago of how my fellow Americans might respond, how some of us might be treated, and which of us might abandon our norms of decency and respect because of the election’s outcome.
To fall back on the same fears is a survival instinct we all know well. Expecting the worst and fighting every step of the way is completely normal, but it is no way to live. I really want more for myself and for my fellow citizens.
I think back to all of my memories as an American kid – of fireworks at the country club, of reading black authors in college, embracing the Internet, celebrating the connections between faiths – and realize they have always on some level been laden with fear and unknown and stories of conflict and contradiction. But those memories also gave me so much – in them I made friendships; learned to love my neighbors; appreciated the color of my skin and of those different from me; became intellectually curious; and was ordained into a community and society with opportunity and potential that my ancestors did not have.
America the Complex
As I reflect tonight on this last night of 2016, I realize that while America has taken care of me as long as I can remember, I – and you – should not take for granted its hospitality, its sense of civic duty, its commitment to advancing the underprivileged, and its constant reinvention of itself. We should remember that with innovation and progress also come drawbacks, challenges, and discontent. Not everyone gets to move ahead at the same time and not everyone is willing to give up something so that others can stand taller.
The combination of complexity, contradictions, hope, and opportunity in America is why I have always loved this country. But love comes with compromise, mistakes, and risks. It is not perfect. We will sometimes be on the wrong side of things – liberal and conservative – and for that we need to figure out what lessons to learn. I hope 2017 will be a year of learning lessons and moving forward from there.
For some of us, becoming American started with learning a few lessons. When I was in high school, I drove with my parents and sister to a courthouse in Cleveland for our citizenship interview. Soon we replaced our green cards with blue passports. I remember we studied so hard to get the questions right. Before that day, we worked hard for years so that we could be safe, educated, healthy, and part of a community that took care of its members.
I know everyone in this country is doing just that – working hard for their families and communities – and wants the same thing I do. Despite all that happened in 2016, all is not lost. I will continue to love and serve America and I hope all of you do too. Happy New Year, friends.