–by Annsleigh Carter
I consider January 20, 2009 my anniversary with America, and I do mean in a romantic sense. I was a freshman at American University, recently emerged from high school in Florida, where walks through my school’s parking lot full of trucks displaying American flags made me feel like the only kid there who did not love America. This was the mid to late 2000s, and I was shaping my political beliefs around criticism of the Bush administration. Obama was the first president I ever voted for, and I was greatly rewarded with celebrations in the streets on election night, during which my friend excused himself to get an Obama 08 tattoo on his forearm. I remember more people smiled on the crowded metro the following mornings. I attended the We Are One concert at the Lincoln Memorial, which featured more A-list celebrities than I can remember seeing. These were the events surrounding the beginnings of my adulthood.
On Obama’s inauguration day, when more seasoned DC residents were fleeing the city, I stayed to be a part of history. It turned out, being part of history meant standing on the frozen and crowded Mall for 10 hours and walking home three miles because public transport was oversaturated. On that frigid day, strangers hugged and cried with happiness. It was then, when I couldn’t feel my limbs and couldn’t stop feeling joy that I fell in love with America. I felt pride for my country, a land where the election of an African American would bring together a crowd of 1.8 million people from all over simply to bear witness to and celebrate progress. Four years later, I did it all again, feeling less surprised and more assured of my country’s greatness.
By November 8, 2016, I had just settled in Boston after a two-year stint in the Peace Corps. Like many women, my female friends and I went out that night expecting to celebrate our first president. Instead of street parties and Hillary tattoos, my friends and I sat soberly watching our country seemingly turn its back on us. It felt like a punch in the gut back into a different era, and I struggled in the following weeks with whether or not I should put my patriotism back on the shelf and wait for America to outgrow this regressive phase. I felt robbed of the optimism I had grown comfortably into, and without optimism, I started recklessly flirting with cynicism. However, I found that after eight years of progressive politics, after landmark legislation for LGBT rights, healthcare, and climate change, increased outrage to injustices through movements like Black Lives Matter, and after two years of serving and representing the best parts of America abroad in the Peace Corps, cynicism just didn’t feel as good. It was like a casual lover I’d indulge, but always at the cost of waking up feeling like it had gotten me nowhere.
The only thing I felt sure of was that I wanted to do something for the inauguration, the event where I had become a patriot. Looking back, I had gotten a few things wrong during those early Obama days. It was a mistake to think that patriotism had come only when I thought America had risen to my standards; it had come once I stood up in the cold alongside people from all 50 states. It was a mistake to interpret those happy celebrations of hope and change as a gift rightfully given to us by the passing of time; it was hard work and strong ideals that got our country there.
I’ll be returning to Washington on January 21st for the Women’s March because I feel that my optimism is worth fighting for. I’m disgusted by Trump’s policies, disheartened by what feels like a giant step backwards for many issues I care about, and dismayed that we’ve given the highest office to a man so degrading to women and minorities. I believe all Americans should fight to protect their optimism, and they should do this however they are able and in whatever way is meaningful to them. For me, the first battle is to return to the Mall to celebrate with people who believe America is great for the same reasons I do.
Feeling patriotic is admittedly easier when you don’t feel alone. Love hits you when you allow yourself to experience what connecting to another person’s passion feels like, and it stays only because you are willing to fight for it. Fighting to live in a country you can be in love with is patriotism. I wonder how many young people will fall in love with America during this inauguration and over the next four years. I needed a movement to show me how to love my country, and so will those who will become adults during the Trump administration. We can show them how.
Annsleigh Carter lives and works in Boston, after living in Albania, after living in DC, after living in Florida. In her heart, she’s a returned Peace Corps volunteer, former English major, and a champion of all types of cheese. She occasionally amateurishly writes.