Letter to America

By Fenton Johnson

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Dear America,

It’s October 2012, and I’m spending the autumn caregiving my then-96-year-old mother in the family home in rural Kentucky when she turns to me and says, “So, Fenton, who are you voting for, for president?” Politics and religion being forbidden topics south of the Ohio, the moment sets itself apart from the norm. I say, “I don’t know, Mother,” though I do, but I understand, in the byzantine way of Southern manners, that the subtext of her question is, “Ask me who I’m voting for.” And so I do and she responds, “I think I’ll vote for this Obama guy.”

“You will?”—I’m shocked out of manners, which takes quite a shock, since my mother understood early that manners were the only gifts she could afford to give her children and so she drilled them in deep—my mother, born in 1916 into the Jim Crow South; my mother, who like most women of my childhood adopted the formulation “nigra” as a genteel linguistic compromise between the impermissible Yankee “Negro” and the men’s unspeakable “n” word.

And then I shut my mouth. I want desperately to know the forces that brought her to this decision but the moment seems too fragile, I’m afraid that something I say will change her mind and so I leave the moment alone.

Across the next several weeks I seize every opportunity to say that if she wants to vote, I’ll figure out a way to make that happen. But she puts me off and dodges the question and puts me off, until it’s election day. I have a full day of errands and so over breakfast I say, “Now’s your last chance, because if I’m taking you to the polls you have to let me know that so I can get back here in time,” since Kentucky closes its polls at an absurdly early 6 p.m. “No,” she says firmly. “I’m too old to vote.” “OK, well, whatever,” I say, and go about my errands, and return around 5:30 to find my mother struggling to push open the door with her walker. “Where are you going?” I ask. “I’ve got to get down there to vote,” she says. The polling place is a mile distant. “All right!” I say. “Let’s get you in the car!”

I get to the polling place at 5:50 and screech to a halt in front of the door and get my mother into her walker. She turns out to be registered in Mitch McConnell’s wet dream of a polling place. There’s a step to negotiatea hazard and a barrier. But I get her over that and inside, to find that the booths are at the far end of a high school gym, 50 yards and more away, and they turn out to be flimsy aluminum stands that provide no purchase or support. The polling volunteers all know my mother, of course, and offer a table and chair for her to vote, but there are no chairs with arms, only folding metal chairs that are more hazardous for an elderly person than the booths. I have no choice but to accompany her to the booth so that she can lean on my arm, though this feels a bit like sitting in on someone’s confession.

The ballot is set in a typeface that would require a 20-year-old to use a magnifying glass, and the voting booth provides the weakest of reading lights. So I take the ballot and read aloud the names, slowly and without inflection, and when I say “Barack Obama” she says, “I’m voting for him.” I read the rest of the names but at the end she says, “Obama.” So I show her the box and she makes an “X.”

And I’m near to tears at witnessing this demonstration how despite all evidence to the contrary and the magnitude of the powers arraigned against it, change, positive change, affirmative change can happen, my mother, 96 years old, voting for an African-American progressive, take that, Senator McConnell! But instead of weeping I point out that she can’t just make an “X,” it’s a computer form and she has to black in the whole box (QED, a living demonstration of why Gore lost Florida in 2000). So, leaning heavily on my arm, she blacks in the box, and I leave her standing in her walker as I cross the additional hundred feet to the machine where I feed in her ballot.


Some years back I pointed out to a dear friend that much could be inferred from the fact that the United States chose as its national symbol the bald eagle, a bird that uses its size and power to steal food from smaller, more skilled animals who track and kill the prey. “A bully and a thief,” I wrote. “An opportunist,” she fired back. You will not be surprised to learn she voted for Donald Trump.

My lefty/liberal friends moan that they don’t see how any intelligent person could vote for Donald Trump. In response I offer the suggestion with which philosopher William James opens his magisterial essay on pacifism, The Moral Equivalent of War. “Pacifists ought to enter more deeply into the aesthetical and ethical point of view of their opponents. Do that first in any controversy . . . then move the point, and your opponent will follow.”

Every Trump voter of my acquaintance was a college graduate who disliked the man intensely but (a) felt ignored by the Washington-New York-Boston-Silicon Valley elite the Obama presidency so carefully cultivated; (b) fell victim to the Republican Party’s 30-year smear campaign, Trump’s lies, and Clinton’s inability to redefine the tone of their encounter; and (c) was insulted by Clinton’s repeated insistence that anyone who’d vote for Trump was racist and “deplorable.” College biology taught them—inaccurately, as it turns out—that “survival of the fittest” is Nature’s only measuring rod, and they believe that, in a world that capitalism is constantly telling them is dangerous—fear sells even better than sex—we need a president who is as nasty and manipulative and bullying as “they” are. That there is no readily identifiable “they” only increases my friends’ fears. That biology now teaches that successful evolution requires cooperation and collaboration as much as competition is a message science is not doing nearly enough to disseminate.

The challenge is great—maybe insurmountable. Any critique of the 2016 election must begin with the reminder that Hillary Clinton comfortably won the popular vote and in a real sense achieved, in fact, an historic victory. But the slave owners of 1789 demanded and got a system that awarded them disproportionate power. With the concentration of the liberal vote in a few states, we are likely to see more elections like 2000 and 2016, with ever-increasing popular vote victories combined with ever-larger electoral college losses.

Perhaps we are witnessing the disintegration of the American Empire, which if that could be accomplished peacefully might be for the best. But if the Empire is to remain united, our work begins, not with the presidential election of 2020, but with the school board and state representative and county sheriff elections of 2017 and 2018.

Over and over I hear the question: How do we respond? Let me rephrase the question: Where were you on Election Day? I went down to the local Democratic headquarters and made a few calls. Nice try, but it was wholly inadequate to the cause.

Watch and wait. Keep your wits about you. Stay calm. The great mistake of the Clinton campaign was engaging Donald Trump on his playing field of insult and ugliness. We can’t win on that field. Let the thieves fall out, as they will, while we gather our strength and organize.

Recognize that while social media has its uses, Facebook and Twitter do not a successful campaign make. Why did my mother change her mind? Because a volunteer called to ask if she’d voted. Campaigns are won by shaking hands, knocking on doors, giving money, coming together, face time. As Obama and Trump taught us in different ways, there’s no substitute for enthusiasm. Can I yell and scream and wave signs for social justice? You bet I can. Where might the left accomplish that? Once we had labor unions and union halls and first-rate regional media, newspapers, and locally-owned television. Now we have… churches.

Get off your lazy weekend ass and join a liberal church or your local Democratic party or your local environmental organization or something, some place where you come together with other like-minded people working for social justice. Turn off your dumb-down devices and make contact. Come together to revere each other and the planet. For every homophobic, misogynistic megachurch, there are three struggling left-wing congregations or temples dedicated to loving kindness and fellowship, where talk of God, if it happens, is undertaken in the most gender-neutral, user-friendly way, and whose leaders are, within the bounds of their tax-free status, eager to promote candidates who share your views.

Attend a Quaker meeting house and learn about nonviolent resistance. Define and honor your limits of action and then stretch them just a little bit in doing what you can. Prepare to put your body where your heart is. Action is the best way to stir yourself from the dumps. Don’t underestimate the power of love. Get out there and do something subversive.

Carry this truth close to your heart: the closer the victory, the stronger the resistance. Unless, of course, we give up.

Okay, so roll your eyes. Don’t join a church. Don’t head down to Democratic headquarters or your lefty nonprofit of choice. Instead spend your Sundays at home on Facebook, send lots of tweets, and lose elections. Take your pick.

The struggle is unending, as it should be. Think of Frederick Douglass, born a slave, who endured the Civil War and the 13th Amendment that ended slavery, then witnessed the corrupt election of 1876 and the end of Reconstruction and the rise of Jim Crow segregation. He died in 1895, with victory seemingly farther away than ever. But somewhere in his dying moments, I like to think he imagined Barack Obama, and my mother’s vote.

Fenton Johnson
Novelist, Essayist, Journalist



Fenton JohnsonFenton Johnson is the author of a new novel The Man Who Loved Birds, as well as a recent Harper’s Magazine cover essay: “Going It Alone: The Dignity and Challenge of Solitude.” His collected essays Everywhere Home: A Life in Essays will be published in 2017.
Read Fenton Johnson’s essay “Pilgrimage to the Magdalen” previously appearing in Terrain.org.

Header photo: Portrait of Thomas Hardin Johnson that hangs over the bar in the Sherwood Inn. Johnson was a Union soldier wounded in 1863 at the Battle of Stones River, Tennessee, and is Fenton Johnson’s great-grandfather. Photo courtesy Fenton Johnson.

Terrain.org is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, art, commentary, and design since 1998.