The day after Donald Trump won the presidential election, I received an email from one of my undocumented students in my Junior English class. He wrote, “I don’t know what I’m going to do. I’m scared I’ll be deported. I don’t have anything to return to in my home country, and the U.S. has become my home.”
Sadly, he’s not alone. Teachers all across the country have heard stories like this one from their students. A colleague of mine in New York spent the day after the election listening to his students cry, scream, and shake. “I always knew I was considered less-than,” one black student told my colleague. “Now it’s coming directly from the White House.” He also told my colleague he had felt hopeful when he saw the famous photo of a small black child touching Obama’s hair years ago. “It was just like mine,” he told my colleague. “Now racists are in that White House,” he said. Another colleague, this one on Chicago’s South Side, told me that two of his students explained to him that because of the election, they are returning to Mexico with their families. “We tried to make this our home, but it’s clear that it will never be,” one of the students told my colleague. “So we’re going home.”
I was struck by what these students were saying about “home,” and how quickly their idea of home has changed since November 9. I’ve tried to examine the idea of home, in its abstract, in my Junior English class when I teach my students about postcolonial literary theory. We read excerpts from Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place and explore what she’s saying about the idea of home. My students were struck by Kincaid’s remarks about not having her own language because of colonization in her homeland, Antigua. She writes that “most painful of all” is that she has “no tongue.” “For isn’t it odd that the only language I have in which to speak of this crime,” she writes, “is the language of the criminal who committed the crime?” This excerpt touched several of my undocumented students. They could relate to having to learn English to fit in here in the U.S., knowing they were marked by their accent, while others, who speak with a normative accent, have been able to walk among the documented, hiding their identity. My students are not naive; they know that undocumented people were deported under Obama. “It’s just different now,” one student explained to me. “Now Trump’s putting all these racists and anti-Muslim guys in his cabinet. And the ties to the KKK. It’s all about them having more power now,” he says. And then he adds that he just doesn’t have time to think about this. “I’ve got to work on my college applications, take the SAT, get all my letters of recommendation together, and still work 30 hours a week.” For so many, life has to move on at home, even as this idea of home crumbles underneath.
Since Trump won, I’ve been reading about home, and about the effect the election has had on young people. In “Doctors See a New Condition Among Immigrant Children: Fear of Trump,” Andrew Gumble reports in The Guardian about young immigrants who have increased depression and anxiety since Trump won. Gumble writes, “Since the 8 November election, pediatricians and clinics serving undocumented immigrants and other low-income patients have reported a spike in anxiety and panic attacks, particularly among children who worry that they or their parents might now face deportation.” The article also states that young children are showing up to emergency rooms alone because their parents are afraid to come with them for fear of being deported. “Even American-born children are suffering–one boy in the south-east asked a doctor for Prozac,” Gumble writes, “because he was worried about his undocumented friend.”
As I was reading about the idea of home, I also came across Salman Rushdie’s 1992 essay on The Wizard of Oz, “Out of Kansas,” where he talks about the idea of home as it relates to the film. Rushdie’s essay prompted me to rewatch the film the other night for the first time in about thirty years. Perhaps no other movie in American pop culture fetishizes this idea of home as “The Wizard of Oz.” Dorothy makes it clear throughout the film that all she wants is to get home. Her mantra, “There’s no place like home,” culminates in her self-empowered discovery that she’s had the ability to go home the whole time she’s been in Oz. Rushdie, however, argues in his essay–written just three years after the fatwa was issued against him–that Dorothy’s mantra is “the least convincing idea in the film.” After fantasizing about getting away, “somewhere over the rainbow,” at the beginning of the film, Dorothy just wants to get back to Kansas (a red state, no less) once she’s in Oz. Rushdie asserts, “It’s one thing for Dorothy to want to get home, quite another that she can only do so by eulogising the ideal state which Kansas so obviously is not.” What Dorothy “embodies with the purity of an archetype,” according to Rushdie, is the “human dream of leaving, a dream at least as powerful as its countervailing dream of roots.” After the fatwa, Rushdie had to reconcile his own ideas of home and leaving to be sure. I don’t mean to suggest that the undocumented under Trump are facing what Rushdie had to. But I can’t stop thinking about how the election is forcing the country to redefine “home” to a degree that it hasn’t had to in my lifetime.
An undocumented friend of mine from El Salvador told me the other day that she is prepared that she might have to leave the U.S., but that the memories she has of El Salvador, she knows, will be very different from the reality. She’ll have to reconcile and redefine what “home” means, and will have to try to find work to survive. Of course, in the Hollywood film, no one is worried about legal status or working (except for Auntie Em and Uncle Henry, perhaps, who are counting their eggs on their farm, worried about having enough; Auntie Em even reprimands their farmworkers for talking too much). Dorothy’s biggest fear in Oz is that she won’t get home. But of course she has an elevated status, though, because she accidentally killed the Wicked Witch of the East. As I was eating popcorn while watching the film, it occurred to me that the election is seeping into everything I do. I had hoped to avoid the news and watch a good ol’ classic from 1939 (the film came out just two weeks before the start of World War II), and I was thinking about Trump, as so many of us are. Rushdie was writing about politics and adults and leaders too, when he composed his essay about the film–while living in hiding–and he emphasizes that the film’s “driving force is the inadequacy of adults.” For us now, too, we see the inadequacy of adults, specifically those with power, in this country.
In order for Dorothy to find her way home, she has to negotiate with the leadership. She must go through her own process of being disillusioned by the Wizard–the leadership–of Oz. She gets home because the Wizard has failed her; he turns out to be an illusion. Only when Dorothy realizes this does she learn (from Glinda, the Good Witch) that she has had the power to get herself home the whole time she’s been in Oz. Rushdie writes that one of the film’s messages is “that we already possess what we seek out most fervently,” and that we all must “learn the futility of looking for solutions outside ourselves.” Dorothy’s faith in the Wizard is what empowers her and ultimately gets her home. “So too must our belief in Wizards perish,” Rushdie claims, “so that we may believe in ourselves.” It’s a beautiful lesson.
Of course we all need to find a sense of self-worth that ultimately must come from inside ourselves. I try to instill this belief in my students, especially those who have internalized negative messages about themselves. But it’s a bit much to ask at times–more for some than others, depending on one’s privilege–to constantly draw upon that source of inner strength when the leaders in charge of this country set policy that directly negates one’s inner self-worth. For me, this is what is so difficult about teaching: How to help students build their own sense of self worth in a disempowering system. Who doesn’t remember being disillusioned by an adult, lied to, even abused, by those older and by those whom we trusted? I remember these things well.
After the election, one of my undocumented students said, “I’m tired of hearing all these sayings that are supposed to empower me.” He was referring to the Gandhi poster down the hall from my classroom that says, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” Another poster in another hallway, with a George Eliot quote says, “It’s never too late to become what you might have been.” One of my students said angrily, “It might actually be too late. I can’t really ‘become whatever I want to be’ if I’m deported.” Undocumented students know that they can’t have faith in their leaders. Black and brown students know they can’t trust the law enforcement that exists under the guise to protect them. And yet all of these students are forced to work within a system constructed by this new leadership, designed to constrict them, and in the place that is supposed to be their home.
What makes Dorothy’s experience in the film so universal–I hesitate using this word but I think it actually works here–is this disillusionment and loss of faith in adults and in leadership. Sure, she has the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Lion whom she can trust, but they’re not able to take on any real leadership roles to help her get home. Auntie Em and Uncle Henry dismiss her childish (but real) concerns about Toto at the beginning of the film. And once in Oz she simply cannot trust that the adults around her will lead her. Rushdie writes that the Wizard’s folly is a “shock to the child’s faith in adults.” Dorothy has been disillusioned by the Wizard in power, but we know that for Dorothy in Oz–which is ultimately, in the great fantasyland of Hollywood–everything will turn out alright. Dorothy gets home, happily back in the red state of Kansas. But she does ultimately leave Kansas–in the book series, not in the Hollywood film. In the sixth book of L. Frank Baum’s series, Dorothy becomes a princess in Oz and brings Auntie Em and Uncle Henry with her. Rushdie writes:
So Oz finally became home; the imagined world because the actual world, as it does for us all, because the truth is that once we have left our childhood places and started to make up our own lives, armed only with what we have and are, we understand that the real secret of the ruby slippers is not that ‘there’s no place like home’ but rather that there is no longer any such place as home: except, of course, for the home we make, or the homes that are made for us, in Oz, which is anywhere, and everywhere, except the place from which we began.
Rushdie had to remake his home after the fatwa was issued against him. He lived in hiding for years, renegotiating what home meant to him. I know I’m making a big leap from Rushdie, bereft of a home, to my students–but I can’t help it, after reading Rushdie’s essay about home written while in exile and thinking about my students trying to make a home under the threat of exile. Under a Trump administration, undocumented students will have to remake their home, too, which may or may not be in the place from which they began, as Rushdie suggests.
John McLeod’s book, Beginning Postcolonialism, has been helpful when I teach about the concept of home in my classroom. McLeod writes that home can “act as a valuable means of orientation by giving us a sense of our place in the world.” Our home, according to McLeod, also “tells us where we originated from and where we belong.” I enjoy having these conversations about home with juniors because many of them are thinking about leaving home–some perhaps for the first time–in a year once they graduate. But now, since Trump won the election, these discussions have changed. One student pointed out a quote that struck him in McLeod’s book. “To be ‘at home’ is to occupy a location where we are welcome, where we can be with people very much like ourselves.” She told me after the election that as an undocumented student, she doesn’t feel welcome in the U.S. anymore. Another student was struck by the questions McLeod asks: “But what happens to the idea of ‘home’ for migrants who live far from the lands of their birth? How might their travels impact upon the ways ‘home’ is considered?” There are no answers; we’ll have to keep talking. Of course, as their teacher, this isn’t good enough. The first step is that I have to look inside myself at my various definitions of home and how they’ve changed over the years.
Growing up as an ardent Jewish Zionist, my faraway home–my “Oz”–was Israel. I was raised to believe that Israel was my spiritual home. Chicago was the home where I grew up, but Israel was the home that I was taught was my birthright. The Emerald City, glistening in green in the film, wasn’t unlike the golden hue on the stones of Jerusalem when I saw the city for the first time. Israel’s leaders were the Wizard. What I didn’t know–what I learned later–was that Palestine was already home to the Palestinians. Now, under the Israeli occupation, under the guise of Jews returning “home,” the real home has been taken from the indigenous Palestinians. Disillusionment in the Israeli leadership came for me when I visited the West Bank, talked with Palestinians, and learned about their home. I’ve been disillusioned ever since, sickened at how Israel perpetuates the mythology of Jews returning to their homeland. Now I work with other non-Zionist Jews and Palestinians to educate people about the ongoing occupation of Palestine. And I can’t remember a time when I had faith in leaders.
A few days after Trump won, a friend emailed me, articulating his thoughts about our need as a society for the prophetic. “Bernie Sanders to me embodies the prophetic tradition of Amos,” he wrote. “When I read Amos or those poets or artists we now honor in our canons, I hear their call to arms and their demands for justice.” Amos was a simple shepherd. He was upset about the discrepancy between the wealthy and the poor. And he was angry because those leaders in charge justified the imbalance. “But what I’ve forgotten about the prophetic,” my friend emailed, “is that it also demands that we enter into the visionary realm where we can truly know and feel the truth of what is possible.”
I want my students to be able to know, to really feel, what it’s like to believe that something is possible. Most importantly, I want them to feel safe and at home wherever they are. There are no ruby slippers here; we have to look elsewhere. With no prophets on our horizon, we’ll have to turn to each other, in the safety of our classrooms, to the streets, within ourselves, for some hope of the prophetic, as we redefine what home really means.