Amid darkness, we must create light. Amid chaos, we must create peace.
Today, on the 20th day of January, 2017, at the noon hour, as stipulated by the Constitution, Donald John Trump was sworn-in as the forty-fifth president of the United States. Everyone knew this day was coming. Though the emotional impact was blunted by the dim awareness of the darkly festive day, the blow was sharpened by the hard reality we now face. President Trump has ascended to the most distinguished office in the land, and with the recitation of his oath, has become the most powerful man in the world.
Whether you wish President Trump well or ill at this moment depends on how vulnerable you have now become, and how active your memory is. For it is not a footnote to be forgotten that the President of the United States spent the last eight years spreading racist theories that the most accomplished black man in American history was a foreign usurper. Nor, too, can it be forgotten (or forgiven) that the President of the United States has pledged to deport millions of those deemed illegal. It was not that long ago, either, that the same Donald Trump who placed his left hand on Lincoln’s Bible and raised his right hand in solemn ceremony, promised to register and ban those belonging to the wrong faith.
What cause for optimism can there be when people across the country are filled with fear and anguish? Where does one begin with words at a moment when words themselves seem worthless? What to say to the millions of women — our sisters — who thought that the odious male in their office, the one who stared and commented and made sexual advances, would get fired but instead…he became the boss? What to say to our brown sons and black daughters, already in a world that had condemned them for their skin color, that, yes, they are good enough? When the president himself has repudiated your humanity, where do you begin in a policy discussion? If one’s humanity is up for debate now, in 2017, does that not nullify the point of the debate?
Trump’s inaugural address was a short string of one-liners bellowed with the frenzy of a populist and the conviction of a capitalist. After it was over, I went outside to a bustling street on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. A black man was leaning against a car, talking on the phone, his dog watching the passersby. From the convenience store below, I could hear Arabic accents making jokes, laughing. An Asian man with a briefcase stoically strolled past. A man hugged his mother as she got out of her car. Streams of people walked up and down the street, going to and from the subway stop, people of every shade and color, speaking every language and idiom known to humanity, free people living in a free land, moving forward with that restless energy that is in boundless supply here, today, like any other day; today, like tomorrow. In complete defiance of any words yelled from the perch of power in Washington, and in natural harmony with those around them, these people of every background and origin were continuing their lives, and with their very existence repudiating the idea that America could be despoiled from above.
America is much more than its president. It is much more than the government of the day. America, at her core, is an idea: the idea that people of all backgrounds, regardless of status or ancestry, can live and love and work and thrive together, in common purpose, with the virtues of citizenship and the values of self-government binding them together. In fact, America — the idea of America — is the most powerful idea ever uttered aloud. It was powerful in 1776 when the Founders exhorted that all men are created equal — and women, and slaves, and maligned newcomers had the audacity to take them seriously, and over the years fought and died to make this creed a reality. It was powerful in 1860, when the preservation of the Union and of the idea of America— “conceived in Liberty,” said the first Republican president, “and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” — fell to a generation continuing the unfinished work of democracy.
America has been the mother of exiles, outsiders, emigrants — people who refresh this nation with their energy, generation after generation, crossing treacherous waters to build something for posterity. America is Frederick Douglass, Walt Whitman, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Martin King, Albert Einstein. America is the refuge of dissidents, and all those who stubbornly refuse to let the world define their attitude for them. America is where the promise of individual rights and liberties was snatched from the corrupt fingers of unholy kings and reposed in the hands of the ordinary person. “In our national beginnings, all redolent with Edenic promises, was the word democratic,” wrote Ralph Ellison, “and since we vowed in a war rite of blood and sacrifice to keep its commands, we act in the name of a word made sacred.”
Whether President Trump succeeds at banning our brothers and deporting our aunts, whether he succeeds at criminalizing our friends and dehumanizing our sisters, will be determined by how fierce and unwavering our resistance is. By “our” I mean this young generation, my generation. The calamity that awaits us if we are indifferent is too great to be left to the supposed grown-ups who brought us here. We, the generation that was promised peace and prosperity, are now called on to stand up for our values, even at great personal risk to ourselves. We did not ask for a life of constant struggle, but that is what life has ordained for us. We did not ask for a planet being ravaged by climate change, but that is what our elders left us. We did not ask for hatred and fear and war and genocide, but that is what has been given to us.
Rather than inhabiting a world of calm and tranquility, our futures were mortgaged off by short-sighted men who sent us to wars for no reason, whose greed wiped out fortunes from our society, who created an economic system where the wealthiest eight people in the world own as much as the bottom fifty percent. We will now live through a world we did not create but must shape, and shaping it will require summoning our best energies to resist a man who threatens not just our values, but the future lives of children who are taking their first breaths this very second.
It is in times of despair, of darkness, of chaos, of terror, that we, the young people of the world, must find the courage — and this will be a great act of courage — to create hope and meaning each and every day. Should we let our commitments be weakened, our values will be extinguished. Should we let our despondency consume us, the idea of America, the ideas of empathy and respect, our inner light, will be vanquished by those now in power. Not for a second should we let the Steve Bannon’s of the world think that they have a monopoly on the idea of America — an idea open to all, welcoming of all, and in need of constant, vigilant defense.
It is fitting that the challenges of tomorrow, as great and insurmountable as they are, have been put in front of a generation not lacking in ingenuity and love. Perhaps this is how it should be: A world demanding great work from us will see that work done. And every day, regardless of what the news says, we will tell the vulnerable among us, especially the darker-skinned, that we are with them.
“I am the darker brother,” wrote Langston Hughes, the great poet. “They’ll see how beautiful I am / And be ashamed.”
Why will they be ashamed? One day, why will the Steve Bannon’s of the world be ashamed of their shameless xenophobia? Why will future generations look upon the hate-mongers and racists of today with the same moral revulsion as we look upon their forebears of yesterday?
Because, says, Hughes, “I, too, am America.”