At a recent book event in San Jose I encountered one of those moments that my son and I had dreaded since our first children’s book Malo’s Amazing Adventures! Excitement Along the River was released and the two of us became “public figures”. Fortunately, he was not at this particular event. During the event, the customary opening remarks and stump speech-like thirty-minute talk went on without a hitch. Next came the Q&A session and the first question during the oftentimes unpredictable part of the program was from a gentleman who had just moved to Silicon Valley from New Mexico. It was a question that set the tone for the ensuing lively sometimes contentious
The man asked, make that demanded to know why I was not talking about racism, police brutality and black-on-black crime. I listened to the combat fatigue-clad bearded man for about sixty seconds -- an especially long time when standing in front of an audience. When I started to respond, the man interrupted and started talking over me until a member of the audience chimed in and told him to let me finish.
The incident happened back in mid-May so why am I writing about it now?
As hyperbolic as it may sound, the trajectory of President Barack Obama’s story, book-ended by his 2008 ascension to the presidency on one side and by his speech before the 2016 Democratic convention in Philadelphia on the other side mirrors that of many Americans, of many immigrants.
On a personal note, President Obama’s improbable life is a reflection of the America I have grown to know and appreciate since I first landed in San Diego over thirty years ago. The speech harkened to the America I write about in my book WUODHA: My Journey from Kenya to these United States; the America I tried telling the gentleman from New Mexico about.
In my memoir, I write thus:
“In chronicling my journey from Kenya to these United States, this book (WUODHA) may serve as a casual; some would say glib and less-than-serious self-serving comparison between the ideal and idea that is America and the stereotype that is Kenya, indeed Africa. That really is not the intent…..WUODHA is MY testimony to MY Kenya and to MY America…..I am a product of both societies having been born in a Kenya I left in January 1981 and last visited in December 2000. I have lived in America for the last three decades; more than half my life.
My America has been a beautifully eclectic, wonderfully inspiring, ever changing oftentimes frustrating, sad and painful blend; one I would never trade – this my American Life – for another.”
And specific to the exchange during the book event, let me add the following enjoinder:
The choice is up to me and you.
Those talking about a utopian America; the proverbial “land of milk and honey” are not only naïve, but given the current zeitgeist, are out of touch with reality. Yes, the economy has “turned around” from its free-fall of 2007-2008, General Motors (GM) is out of bankruptcy and unemployment is at its lowest point in decades.
However, there is a palpable feeling among many Americans that the country is moving in the “wrong direction”; that crime is on the rise as is illegal immigration; that they’ve been “left behind” by the global economy.
These folks would like nothing better than to “stick it” to the proverbial “man” -- responsible for their circumstances -- and elect Donald Trump.
Likewise, folks talking about a dark and dystopian America; the proverbial society they are pining “to take back” from some unnamed usurpers are delusional and hypocritical. The one question these folks are loath to answer is the one that asks them to clarify which era of America’s past they “want back”. They also get stumped when asked to clarify who they want to “take ‘their’ country back” from. And for some odd reason, these folks are unconvinced that America has gotten better since Barack Obama took office.
These are competing versions of America I have experienced and grown to know.
The two Americas respectively described by Hillary Clinton and by Donald Trump are real as are the opportunities and challenges therein. America is a resilient and dynamic society that offers limitless possibilities where anything and everything is possible:
From utter chaos and hopelessness; a country devoid of “law and order” that only the man who offers said assessment -- Donald Trump -- can "fix" to the proverbial “land of opportunities” that offers the audacity of hope, endless opportunities, optimism and redemption -- as offered by Hillary Clinton.
The challenge for us, for the gentleman from New Mexico, is embodied in which version of America we subscribe to. In response to the questions asked by the gentleman from New Mexico, I asked him whether he had the patience and tenacity to put in the hard work needed to confront the issues that he raised and build “his” version of the “perfect union” America’s founding fathers spoke about 240 years ago.
I was also asking myself that same question.