On Tuesday, November 7, 2000, when I was a new freshman at a small liberal arts college in southern Minnesota, Republican George W. Bush was elected over Democrat Al Gore to be the 43rd president of the United States. When all was said and done, Bush surpassed Gore in the Electoral College by five votes, yet Gore beat Bush in the popular vote by over 540,000. It was the first election since 1888 where the Electoral College and the popular vote did not align—becoming the closest presidential race in American history—and the first in which I could vote.
There was a lot of attention focused on Florida, as I recall, a lot of questioning of the Electoral College, a lot of angry Democrats. I cannot, however, remember much beyond that: where I voted, how I learned the results, what I thought of those results or of those powerful white men—presidential candidates, vice presidential candidates, party leaders and campaign managers—all who looked and sounded exactly the same as every other powerful white man I’d seen involved with politics. I can’t even recall who I voted for.
And why would I? The political arena was a spectacle I despised.
Somewhere within my childhood and teenage years—from the scandals surrounding Bill Clinton to Rush Limbaugh’s strident and constant complaints broadcast over radio shows—I’d come away with the impression that politicians were showmen, and that Republicans and Democrats could not and would not ever get along. I was an introverted, good kid. I spent mornings in libraries checking out books, and afternoons under shady trees reading those books. In them, I’d learned about empathy, and I believed in the importance of loving one’s neighbor as oneself, of being kind. Kindness, from what I could determine, lived nowhere in the world of politics—not between the parties—and when, through media or corner rallies or conversation, I could not avoid a few sidesteps into its realm, I witnessed and heard only virulence and spite and blame. Removing myself from those zones of antagonism seemed an easy choice.
What I didn’t realize at the time was how it was also a privileged one.
I was white. Middle-class. Straight. Christian. Remarkably unaware of how my ability to turn away from politics was because of politics, because of all the rules and laws and assumptions that worked for me.
Sixteen years later, on the morning after November 8th, I sat among a circle of sixteen- and seventeen- year-olds—my students—in a North American Literature class. We were in the middle of reading Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a novel I had recently introduced to them as the one most often called our country’s national epic.
“Why?” I had asked them, two weeks before. “What about this narrative still says something essential regarding who we are?”
That morning, hours after a new president had been elected, I watched these teenagers sit in their seats and look at me, wide-eyed, and look at each other, the book open in their hands. In the previous night’s reading, two men leap from the shore uninvited onto Huck’s and Jim’s river raft, and in short-order, they declare themselves Duke and King, claim the vessel as their own, commandeer the only beds, choose when they will stop and go, and never ask Huck or Jim anything, never once question their right to decide the fate of the group. Why would they? They are powerful white men. Career con-artists. And though Huck recognizes them as such, he accepts their antics because he wants to “keep peace in the family,” and he’d learned from his abusive father throughout his childhood that it was best to let men like that have their way.
On the surface, it seems like a smart decision by Huck: Why stir up trouble? Why stick his neck out? Why get involved with people who, when ruffled, are likely to strike back with virulence and spite and blame? He keeps floating down the Mighty Mississippi with these two frauds at the helm of his raft, choosing instead to contemplate the beauty of a lightning storm. It’s an easy choice—for Huck—and he makes it.
“But who is he forgetting?” I asked my students.
And they immediately said, “Jim.”
There’s Jim, saying “Your Grace” and “Your Majesty.” There’s Jim, serving the dinner he made. There’s Jim, his bow echoing the slave’s life in Missouri he fled from. There’s Jim, bound with ropes so the gang of them can travel the river in the daytime, his comfort unconsidered, unimportant—not in the face of progress.
“Why is this called our national epic?” I asked my class again. And their eyes blazed. There was a book in their hands, but they were not under a shade tree. They were out from under whatever had sheltered them, face up, staring straight into the sky, at what’s coming.
These students were too young to vote in the election that happened the day before, another historically close race, between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. And this upset them. Most wanted to do something, to say they tried, to be one more mark against a conman who they felt had steamrolled ahead on the backs of their friends and family, the ones who that morning felt tied up, backed into a corner, scared and unsure how the plans of the new men in charge might jeopardize their freedom.
They did not vote, and yet these kids will remember this election for the rest of their lives. They will remember who they would have voted for, what they would have voted for, what their voices—whether silent or spoken—can allow, or do.
I cringe now at my reluctant politics, at the ways in which I’ve failed to recognize my privilege, at all the issues I’ve been able to overlook.
None of it, any longer, seems easy.
But as I watch my students—white and black and brown and gay and straight and Christian and Muslim and atheist and upper- and middle- and lower-class youth—I’m grateful at how much more aware they are than I was at their age, how less likely they are to casually extricate themselves from oppressive systems and just focus on something else.
It gives me hope—that this election is a lesson the next generation will hold in their bones like they held that book. That they will not become complacent. That they will not give in to fear. That they will think on this thing, as they navigate the river on the raft we all share, and not hesitate to call out the bully, call out the fraud, dwell not in peace but in disquiet, right up until the moment when that fraud missteps and falls overboard, as he will.