For months now, I have had memories surface from a time gone by. A time during which my life in a privileged/lucky bubble of naïveté was made plain, and a desire to live a more expansive, and truth-seeking life became a core personal value. This morning, I was called to remember this time of transformation when I received a literal phone call from the man with whom I shared that period of personal change.

It started with a short text message:

Tell me you voted

Of course my response was, yes (!!!!!), but it was also laced with incredulity at his need to even ask. My heart also felt lighter instantly, knowing that a kindred spirit that I knew and cared for was taking the kind of small but significant steps toward justice that might eventually swell from ripples into a giant, impactful wave. The text came from an old Kenyan love, a man who has proven to be a source of tremendous wisdom for me that I still tap daily. Our connection, though obviously way less frequent than it once was, felt suddenly undeniable. And for that matter, the U.S. 2020 Election is/was so high stakes that it connected the entire human family through the shared feelings of anticipation and anxiety, presently consuming us all. My old love was spending his day texting calling every friend he has in America to ensure that each person was registered and planning to vote for Biden.

Voting and Upholding Democracy

Many moons ago, I visited Kenya for a month with this same Kenyan love. Our December holiday vacation plans in the country fell during the election of an incumbent president against a new candidate. During the weeks of campaigning that I got to witness while there before the election, I learned how rare it was for an African incumbent president to give up power. It is so rare, in fact, that enormous sums of money are awarded to countries in Africa when they achieve and demonstrate peaceful transfers of power.

My ex had an uncle who happened to be a Member of Parliament and who was also campaigning to keep his seat. So for the month of December and during my holiday visit, Kenya provided me an unforgettable life lesson on the evolving nature of the democratic process. We gathered with family members and organizers in the Western province (the region where the town that his uncle represented was located) to make flyers to remind people to vote. I loved having a front row seat to this newer republic realizing its goal of democracy. This made what happened next a memory that will forever be seared into my memory.

On the night of Election Day, we gathered at the home of my love’s uncle with family and friends to watch the live news footage as the election results poured in. As was expected, his uncle won his seat again as MP, and the local rejoicing began, though it was unfortunately short-lived. Only a few hours in, the presidential election results live coverage suddenly stopped. The news network began replaying a bizarre video loop of previously aired results. Someone changed the channel, and then again, but the same strange replay was happening on every channel. When a news anchor finally appeared live, she announced that an incident had occurred, causing ballots & votes to be “lost”. An immediate collective heaviness settled into the luxurious room we were in, stifling us all with confusion and discomfort. Every Kenyan present understood what was unfolding now, though I did not. Someone finally explained it to me: the incumbent was in the process of “stealing” the election.

The night and weeks that followed seemed rank with corruption, and the local news channels reported countless acts of violence that erupted mainly in the slums of Nairobi. And also suddenly, the Western news media seemed to leap at the chance to paint Kenya, its failing democracy, the angry, violent mobs of people in a one-dimensional and judgmental hue. The country I had grown to love after so much time spent there was suddenly cast in a precarious light. In my mind I kept trying unsuccessfully to make sense of what was happening, comparing the events to American elections. My head was also spinning with knowledge of another friend from my college years, with whom I had recently been in touch via email. He proudly boasted that his work for a top consulting firm in South Africa included creating the Kenyan incumbent president’s re-election strategy. Had someone I used to party with in college contributed to disrupting the delicate balance of democracy in Kenya? How could this really be happening? What is wrong with the world? I kept pressing some imaginary entity… And how can we fix it?

The vulnerability I felt being now in a country where the most oppressed and rage-filled Kenyans were rightfully rioting in the slums and streets with nothing left to lose led me to question how safe I was anywhere, let alone Kenya. When I finally, idealistically suggested to my love that American democracy had more checks and balances in place than those in Kenya that could prevent such an overtly criminal power grab, he chuckled at my arrogance & naïveté. He asserted with a conviction that I will never forget that America’s teetering power dynamics and nearly broken democracy would reveal itself soon enough. When I tell you I have thought about my ex and my time in Kenya every day since Donald Trump was elected, I am not exaggerating.

The Delicate Balance of Democracy

Out of necessity, my ex had spent a lifetime educating himself about the delicate balance of democracy. He knew it was something to be fought for, everyday and all the time, because it is not promised. His referential knowledge of America’s political system, past elections, the significant policies and legislation that advanced my American rights and freedoms and those that did not stunned me. And yet, it also activated me. His attentiveness made me pay attention. He made me realize how much I had taken for granted. He made me appreciate what is working within America’s political system and what is not. He made me notice more nuance about the potential negative fallout of the election of the first Black president in particular. He made me hopeful for what might be possible, yet honest about the wounds, fissures and brokenness caused by the legacy of slavery and a racist caste system, patriarchy, and the inequitable socio-economic system in America which, in particular, often seems the true emperor of our country, dividing us, stratifying us, directing so many peoples’ survival-mode life-experiences and distracting us from our most basic capacity to connect fully and lovingly to ourselves and each other.

And now that president Biden and Vice-President Harris have been elected, legally, by the American people in 2020, another significant memory has played and replayed in my mind. This one is from the time I spent living and traveling in Asia. I was in Seoul in 2008, the night President Barack Obama was elected for the first time. I was with Americans and Korean reporters in a bar in the expat neighborhood called Itaewon. When the news media declared his win, we were shocked by our own hope and happiness and our rejoicing was captured by the many journalists and cameras that were poised and ready to chronicle our sharing of a similarly historic moment. You see, the Koreans had been rooting for Obama’s win, too. The perspective on American politics that being on the other side of the globe during Obama’s election gave me was a game-changer. As we listened to John McCain’s dignified concession speech, my heart nearly halted upon hearing the hate-filled threats and harsh declarations of disappointment about Obama’s win from McCain’s audience of supporters. The collective nature of their rage and misery so overtly on display, and their refusal to accept the election outcome shook me. Yet, McCain’s firm disavowal of their aggression comforted me, assured me that his own moral compass was still intact, though his supporters seemed to have none at all. After four years of the present administration, it has become hard to imagine a political leader whose humanity instinctively prevented him from spiraling downward into the ever-widening abyss of stultifying fear and radicalism being demonstrated by a seemingly growing American populace. It was in that moment, standing outside of and thousands of miles from the society that made me who I am, that I witnessed the bubble I had been in. I was shook, indeed. Who were these people? Why were they so angry, ignorant, and consumed by fear and (what occurred to me as) madness-making melancholy and vitriol. I honestly felt that I was watching the making of a sociopathic and monstrous collective. By being so far from home, I had been plucked unwittingly from the culture that informed my intersecting identities, and I saw clearly how disconnected I was from the experiences and perceptions of millions of American citizens. How had I missed how great the divide was between so many Americans when history had always consistently demonstrated this crystal clear line in the sand?

The text from my ex was followed by a call. After I assured him of my vote, I reminded him of our time together in Kenya during that election. He sighed. He remembered it, too. We all should. Every day and always. May complacency never be an option for any of us. 2020, the presidential victory of the Biden-Harris ticket over an authoritarian in the making, COVID, and protests against race-based violence and injustice are all moments demonstrating a need to wake up, to participate daily in democracy through civic engagement. This election, like all elections, are a measure of where we are in our democratic evolution.

So thank you, America for your birth pains and delivery; like any delivery, it was hard wrought. One thing is certain, the U.S. A is still a baby, a mere infant on the path toward realizing the American dream of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all. I hope we all commit to staying the course, toward a more perfect union. We have so much healing and work yet to do.