Every November, I plant tulip and daffodil and crocus bulbs in the cold, hard dirt of my garden. The bulbs are papery brown, with elfin points. I bought sixty this year, and for an entire morning, while my daughter and her friend tumbled nearby in the yard, I labored to dig six-inch holes in the Colorado clay, to drop in three or four bulbs, and then to cover them with rich potting soil and fertilizer.
Mitike and her friend crowded close: “But when will they come up?” they wanted to know, scrunching their faces at the ugly work of dirt and brown bulb and dead leaves. I shrugged. “They need months of cold. In the spring, they’ll surprise us. Don’t worry.”
In the early morning of November 9, when the news that Donald J. Trump had won the American presidential election was still a fresh wound, I stood at my kitchen window and stared in the gray light at the empty dirt strip along our garage, where I had planted three dozen of the daffodil and tulip bulbs. I hated the obvious metaphor. I wanted the munificence of yellow and red now; I wanted lush green, fertile bloom, the explosion of hope—not more crumbled dirt layered with dog shit and impermeable clay.
An hour before, I had held my wife close as she cried and murmured her fear for the legality of our marriage, for her second-parent adoption of our daughter, for the safety of the immigrants in our community, for all women. Our daughter bounded into our room at 5 a.m.: “Did she win? Did she win?” We pulled her into bed with us, inhaled her coconut oil scent. “No,” I said gently, and Mitike’s eyes widened. “But what will happen now?”
Now, for a while, we will grieve. The world I entered on November 9 was as funereal as it was surreal. At the sprawling Denver high school where I teach English, students and teachers spoke in hushed voices or hugged each other, their faces tear-streaked. Our student population is comprised mostly of Hispanics, African Americans, and immigrants from over one hundred and twenty countries. Many of them are Muslim, some are GLBTQ+, half are girls. A Trump victory shouted in their faces that they are not welcome here, that America is not safe for them. They had hoped America would dream of them as much as they have dreamed of America, but this morning, that hope lay trampled beneath red “Make America Great!” signs. A death.
In every class, I gave the students—all seniors—space to talk. The air felt more like grief group than English class. A___ expressed her rage, claiming she would unfriend any Trump supporter on social media, that anyone who had voted for him had voted for white supremacy and misogyny and against her, an African American girl. M___ told us her family had discussed late last night whether they should risk the return to Ethiopia. W___ wondered why so many Americans do not vote; in his native Ghana, he said, people have died for that right. Many students with illegal parents shared their fears of deportation. S___, who is Muslim, asked how he could feel safe now, when the new president gave permission to his supporters to use violence against people like him. F___ entreated everyone to work harder, and R___ insisted that our fear will accomplish nothing, that we need to be like her parents, who risked the long journey through the desert from Mexico for a better life. The better life is still here, she said. D___, who ships out with the Marines this summer, reminded us all that one man doesn’t have ultimate power in America, that the country we make is still up to us. In every class, the square space of our classroom became again the America I believe in, countering the terrible truth that a misogynist, racist, impulsive, xenophobic wheeler and dealer has just become president.
But there is still that truth.
I reassured my students about the short term, about American processes, about the protections of the Constitution. And I reminded them about the long view; I reminded that them their voices, written and spoken, matter now more than ever; I insisted that those of us who can afford to speak boldly WILL.
But here, approaching, is President Trump.
The media is already trying to soften the blow, positing that he will be unable to accomplish everything he has proposed, that our system will check and balance him, that it’s only four years, after all. But it’s not just Trump that makes us grieve today. It’s the realization that the America that chose Trump hates those of us who are women, immigrants, Muslims, people of color, GLBTQ+ that much.
I try to understand the thinking of the Trump voters—not the raging white supremacists or the gun-toting border-patrolling xenophobes, but the average rural American. I grew up in eastern Iowa on a farm; I attended high school twenty-one years ago in Davenport, Iowa, where John Deere and ALCOA and the IBP Slaughterhouse are still the largest employers. I am certain that many of my former classmates voted for Trump. If I met them for a beer at a bar on Brady Street, would they tell me they voted for Trump because they hate me and my wife and my African daughter, my immigrant students, all women in general?
I don’t think so. I think they’d tell me about how they never get ahead, no matter how many hours they work. I think they’d tell me about how college—even community college—is prohibitively expensive. I think they’d tell me about how those jobs at the slaughterhouse don’t pay what they paid their fathers, and that many companies prefer cheap unskilled labor these days, anyway. I think they’d say, Wasn’t there a day when America was better than this? And we would sip our beer and gaze out at the new suburbs, built on rich farmland that no one can afford to cultivate any longer. Not in this economy.
Someone posted on Twitter that the white working class chose Trump for the same reasons a cancer patient chooses chemotherapy: injecting poison into your body might be worth it if it kills the cancer. Again, I imagine sharing that beer with my former Davenport West classmates who voted for Trump. You chose the wrong guy, I would say. He won’t stand up for you. It was all bluster. He said what he needed to say to get elected. He won’t change your lives. And: Don’t you want a leader who displays basic kindness and respect? Iowa taught us to be better than this. So says the lesbian woman with two master’s degrees, the teacher of immigrants.
The conversation in the Davenport bar won’t happen. My former classmates and I live in two different countries.
And that’s America’s most serious problem right now. The red country and the blue country speak different languages, have radically different cultural values and taboos. Who will unite us, and how? As my daughter and I made dinner the night after the Trump victory, the radio buzzing as the NPR commentators struggled to analyze the brave new Trump world, she asked, “But Mom, what will happen now?”
I studied my beautiful, smart, inquisitive daughter a moment, and then I gazed out the kitchen window. Again, I stared at the barren strip of dirt where I had planted those dozens of tulips and daffodils. My chest ached.
Soon, my wife would come home from seeing her patients, and we would all sit down at our table, link hands, murmur thanks, and then eat together. In eastern Iowa, a Trump-supporting classmate of mine will also sit down with his wife and his child, and they will also link hands and murmur thanks and then eat together. In Aurora and Denver, my students from Burma, Ghana, Liberia, Eritrea, Cambodia, Mexico, Honduras, and Iraq also sit sharing meals with their families. We are all linked like this. We are not so different. We could resist the temptation to let hate divide us and defeat us.
“Mom?” Mitike persisted. “I said, what will happen now?”
I could talk about tulips and daffodils, the way we wait through the cold dark months until finally—suddenly!—the bright green shoots rise from the snow and the mud, and then brilliant red and yellow and orange blooms burst open. I could talk about why the wait and the cold and the dark are worth it, or about the promise we nurture with our hope. I could talk about how we will refuse to move backward, that we will keep demanding progress. And I will, later.
Right now, I just gather my sweet little daughter into my arms, and I say, “We love each other, and we finish making dinner.”
And we do.
About Sarah Hahn Campbell
Sarah Hahn Campbell is a lesbian essayist and novelist who lives in Denver, Colorado, where she teaches high school English and parents a beautiful little girl with her wife, Meredith. Campbell has published work in a variety of publications, including Curve, Room Magazine, Sinister Wisdom, Iris Brown Lit Mag, and Adoptive Families Magazine. Her novella, The Beginning of Us, came out in January 2014 from Riptide. Originally from a farm in eastern Iowa, she holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Naropa University and writes a monthly column called “Subversions” for Brain Mill Press.