When President Barack Obama was elected president of the United States in 2008, I travelled to Washington DC with friends to attend his inauguration. Nestled in ski-quality leg and hand warmers, buried under layers of clothes, and in winter boots, we drove to DC two days early — before the barricades went up — and crashed at a friend’s nephew’s dorm room at George Washington University ahead of the big day.
The cold, hard dorm floor was worth it: I was witnessing history. I was not yet an American citizen. I only became one three weeks after Obama’s re-election, so I never voted for him. And while I had read works by James Baldwin, Martin Luther King, and WEB Du Bois, my understanding of the black experience in America was limited.
Non-Americans often ask me what it has been like to live through President Donald Trump’s administration after the heady years of Obama. The answer, for me, is complicated. Raised in a strict Christian home in Kenya, my political beliefs aligned with my faith, ergo the American Republican Party. In 2002, I migrated to America, yearning for the kind of opportunities I didn’t think were possible in my home country, including getting a job on merit and not through corruption. The more conservative party’s views, particularly in the areas of fiscal responsibility and so-called family values, resonated with me.
Still, watching Fox News night after night, I was discomfited by the daily segments that hosts such as Bill O’Reilly featured. They were often anti-immigrant and consistently attacked black celebrities. Perhaps because I held a tight tension between my faith and my native culture’s subjugation of women, I wanted to be unbound. I couldn’t stomach the Republican Party’s obsession with overturning Roe vs Wade (the 1973 court case that paved the way for legalised abortion in the US) and their desire to dictate women’s choices.
I spent the years leading up to Obama’s presidency untangling the traps of my faith and expanding my palate to allow for a diversity of ideologies in life, politics and policy. Even though it felt forced to identify with one party or other, I still believed in America’s diversity, that regardless of faith or race or other distinguishing characteristics, there was a fair, moral, human centre where we could all thrive. I opened myself to her stained history and grasped onto hope.
Obama was a beauty emerging from America’s dark past. The tide seemed to be turning, heading toward a utopian democracy. But his years turned out to be difficult ones for me in terms of personal political growth. Perhaps part of it was simply timing — I believe that it takes about a decade for an immigrant to fully grasp America’s racial lens, to comprehend how embedded racism is in her institutions and culture.
Trumpism emerged shortly after Obama took office. Republicans continued to question the president’s birthplace, with then reality star Trump leading the charge. Michelle Obama was called an “ape in heels” and their children ridiculed for wearing short skirts to a turkey pardon.
These larger political divisions spilled over on a micro level. I was overlooked for promotions; I had a doctor test me for HIV without my consent (it’s illegal in New York) because I was African; and the indiscriminate killing of black folks by police made me fearful that a bullet would shorten my life. There never were heady Obama years for black people; the racist underbelly arose mightily and made him America’s truth serum instead.
This election, I can’t imagine ever experiencing political joy as I did with my friends as we swayed to Mary J Blige’s rendition of Lean on Me at Obama’s inauguration. I’m hardened. Truly, I yearn for a day when America has a diversity of ideologies, where we recognise that few of us fit within the narrow definitions of the two parties. I live in New York and vote local, believing my representatives may listen … sometimes. And when it all becomes too much, I cross the street to Brooklyn’s Grand Army Plaza and join angry, tired New Yorkers to demand better. It’s where I find faith these days.
Jakki Kerubo is a writer based in Brooklyn, New York.
This story first appeared in The Continent, the award-winning pan-African newspaper designed to be read and shared on WhatsApp. Get your free copy here.