On June 17, 2006, I walked through Julius K. Nyerere International Airport in Dar es Salaam. My then-husband was not with me, and I balanced my daughter on my hip as I walked. It was the first time I’d traveled abroad.
I was nervous about clearing Customs but soon discovered my fears were unfounded. The eagle on the front of my passport made entry a breeze. Once I finished with Customs, I searched the crowd for my in-laws. I soon saw my child’s grandmother waving me over, welcoming me with her gap-toothed smile.
“DANIELLA” she exclaimed as she pulled me into her embrace. It was our first meeting, but it felt like a reunion with an old friend. My father-in-law grabbed our luggage, and we headed to a black Land Cruiser, where my mother-in-law’s driver, Mustafa, was waiting.
After telling my mother-in-law about the flight, I expressed relief that we quickly found each other at the airport. She laughed loudly, showing the gap-tooth smile again.
“Oh my Daniella, I knew it was you immediately! Even if I hadn’t seen your picture, I would’ve known it was you!”
Puzzled, I asked her what she meant.
“It’s in the way you walk! You Americans move so fast as if you are in a perpetual rush. A Tanzanian would not walk like that”, she chuckled.
Physically, I could easily blend in among Tanzania’s many ethnic groups. For the first time in my life, I was immersed in an environment with people whose skin tone, facial features, and build resembled mine. Whether I was in Dar es Salaam or Arusha, the scene was the same: ALL BLACK EVERYTHING! But an invisible air to my body language and voice marked me as a mzungu and an American. To their credit, neither my in-laws or Tanzanians I met mistreated me due to my background. Nevertheless, during this trip, I became conscious of how much my nationality influenced me. Even with my complicated history as a Black American, American is who I was, and it was clearly recognized outside of the United States.
We Americans are a different kind of people. We genuinely believe that we are exceptional. There are aspects of the American character that are indeed unique to us. Unfortunately, American exceptionalism makes us think we’re immune to the uglier side of human nature, nation-states, and empires. We witness civil conflict, war, and genocide outside our borders, clutching our pearls at the spectacle. We may even express empathy for the victims. But, we do not see OURSELVES in the faces of refugees fleeing Central America, Somalia, Congo, Syria, Iraq, Myanmar, or other places worldwide. Such misfortune happens over THERE, we tell ourselves.
‘It can’t happen HERE.’
After all, we are Americans-special, blessed, exceptional.
Even with my knowledge of my country’s tortured and flawed nature, I had internalized American exceptionalism. As late as the fall of 2020, I passionately argued with Facebook friends who warned of the growing fascism in our society. I dismissed their fears and told them they were being melodramatic. The United States would not-COULD NOT-slide into dictatorship and civil conflict. We had the U.S. Constitution, the best document for the government ever written in history! Yes, the dispossession of the Indigenous people and enslavement of my people took place while it was written and continued after. But our founding documents were still a roadmap worth following, our saving grace. The Constitution had been amended throughout our existence, slowly pushing us towards a ‘more perfect union.’ I maintained this belief until the day my Aunt Deb frantically called me.
It was January 6, 2021.
“DINKY” she yelled, “are you watching the news?”
“No,” I replied, perplexed. My aunt hadn’t bothered to say ‘good afternoon’ and ask how I was doing. I didn’t know why she’d ignored greeting protocol, but she quickly informed me
“Girl, turn on CNN NOW! These fools done broke through the barricades and are rampaging through D.C!”
I turned on the T.V. and flipped to CNN. My jaw dropped at what I saw, and alarm and fear controlled my mind. Aunt Deb could get passionate and exaggerate at times, but this time she wasn’t.
“WHERE IS LEECEE??!!!” I pleaded with my aunt, who was still on the phone. Leecee is one of my aunts’ daughters. She worked in a senator’s office at the time. The idea of my cousin being caught amongst that crowd struck a fear in my heart that I didn’t know could exist. My aunt let me know that my cousin was still in Seattle visiting for the holidays. This gave me a slight sense of solace, and I continued watching the coverage.
Washington, D.C. The resilient capital of a global superpower, the operation center of the self-proclaimed most extraordinary country that ever existed, didn’t look EXCEPTIONAL. No, it looked like scenes that have unfolded numerous times in nations we believe we are superior to:
A rage-filled mob overrunning barricades and attacking law enforcement.
The hectic scene of insurrectionists chanting their intention to hang the CURRENT VICE PRESIDENT.
The deliberate targeting of politicians from the opposition party.
The chaos continued for weeks after that. The National Guard was deployed to D.C. ahead of Biden’s inauguration. The site of soldiers sleeping on the capitol’s marble floors, rifles at their side in case the threat returned, made me deeply ashamed. I wasn’t ashamed of the soldiers; I understood why they were there and that it was needed. I was embarrassed that it had come to this.
Nearly 18 months later, hearings about the events of January 6 have finally begun. In the face of a looming recession, record inflation, and gas prices, many don’t even want to talk about what happened that day. I have seen meme after meme and comments saying it wasn’t that bad. Few of us dare to even call it what it is. We don’t want to call it a coup attempt. Doing so, in my view, means we Americans would have to face an uncomfortable truth.
To do so might mean a concession that we are not unique. But let’s complete an exercise:
Imagine that you are watching CNN, Fox News, or MSNBC. A breaking news alert interrupts scheduled programming. A country held a presidential election. But a violent mob massed in the nation’s political capital, transparent in their demands:
- ‘Stop the steal’ of the election from their leader.
- Execute the “traitors” who are ruining “their” country-the current Vice President included.
Now, imagine this event happened in Kigali;
Picture it taking place in Mexico City;
Visualize it in Baghdad;
If the event occurred in the Middle East, Africa, or Latin America, there would be less ambiguity in calling it for what it is. There would be little hand wringing or minimizing. The situation would be clear: it’s a coup! And as Americans, we would shake our heads and comment how unfortunate these countries are so riven with violence and instability! We’d give thanks that we are Americans, exceptional, and such things don’t happen to us,
I agree. Right now, we are being
And exceptionally ARROGANT
Despite the numerous red alarms blinking ‘danger,’ we rush head-on towards catastrophe! Canadian political scientists are so concerned that we will become a right-wing dictatorship by 2030 that they advise their government to prepare for this possibility and secure their border with us! The fact that so many of us across the political spectrum cannot see the looming danger our northern neighbors recognize just makes it more likely that it will “happen here.”
I increasingly believe the U.S. will cease to be a Constitutional Republic within the next eighteen years, instead ruled by a fascist strongman in the European mold. I hope that I’m wrong. But if I am right, the day will come when the Bill of Rights is gone, and civil conflict erupts. And perhaps at that moment, when we sit in the ashes of our failed nation-state, Americans will finally understand that we, too, were ordinary people.