My America

The Friday after Trump was elected, while upstairs looking for socks, I suddenly began to sob. Huge, wracking sobs that shocked my family into silence. There was nothing new since the horror of Tuesday night and the silent, stunned Metra ride into work on Wednesday morning. Nothing specifically different at that moment. Why did it hit me then, I wondered? 

My sobbing propelled us into monthly donations to the ACLU and Planned Parenthood. It turned my Christmas list into “Donations to SPLC.” It sent me to the first Women’s March in D.C. It drove my husband and me to the protests at the airport and to marches downtown. It brought me Progressives for Change and postcard writing. It pushed me into action. Where was this desperation coming from?

When my father died suddenly in Kenya in 1998, it was a huge shock. In the three following weeks prior to his funeral, I dealt with the loss by taking care of business: organizing the funeral, planning for my mother’s return, collecting photos, writing an obituary. I realized later that I was hoping that taking action could change reality. 

Trump’s election was equally shocking. People I knew were horrified, terrified, and enraged. My family was dismayed and incredulous. I was many of those things, too. But somehow, those emotions didn’t seem to reflect the entirety of mine. They were able to talk of other things and got tired of my one-track mind.   Some months on, I recognized my incessant, frenzied action … I was grieving My America.

My America was forged in the Democratic Republic of the Congo where I grew up the child of missionaries. Living in rural Congo, the missionary community spoke of “home” with great pride, love, and patriotism. In “the States,” the government worked for the people, and you could trust the police and the president. There were jobs and health care. There were paved roads and electricity. In the US, every neighborhood had a school. You could drink from the tap! 

I knew only the good. Every 4th of July we sang, “America, America, God shed His grace on thee, and crown thy good with brotherhood…” I adored that song, imagining the beautiful spacious skies and amber waves of grain. I sang fervently of the pilgrim feet, heroes proved, and patriot dreams. My America was the Statue of Liberty proudly welcoming the tired and poor, the homeless and tempest tossed. My America was a beacon of light, a model to the world, a sweet land of liberty.  

I grew up and went to live in that America, home to my parents but not, in fact, very familiar to me. The culture shock was real. Over time, I learned some politics and gained some standard cultural knowledge. I became an NPR fan during the Anita Hill hearings, and as I learned of police brutality, issues in the criminal justice system, cronyism, and other issues, my America tarnished. I voted Democrat to polish it up. I kept up with news and kept learning, but I never really doubted that as a country we were on an upward trajectory, and I was mostly silent.

Trump’s election shook me to the core. Open racism, misogyny, greed, selfishness, and corruption were ignored or even prized by citizens of my country. The evangelical community, where in my childhood I had learned my values, aided and abetted Trump’s behaviors. The hypocrisy was unfathomable to me and was a betrayal. I realized that in my white privilege, I had deliberately ignored or minimized many easily visible truths. I sobbed with grief for My America.

In the last two years, my grief has subsided, and I look with more honesty at this country I now call home. Love of country is much more to me now than songs and statues. It is recognizing the presence of discrimination and oppression. It is the taking of a knee and the writing of a postcard. Patriotism is attending a city hall meeting and confronting a racist in Target. It is forming P4C and keeping it going. In these actions, I see my fellow patriots everywhere. This is not My America, it is Our America, and it is alive. 

Debbie Sandstrom

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