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I grew up in the sort of Midwestern small town regularly referred to as “The Real America,” a description that seems to all but guarantee that the region being so labeled will in no way resemble most of the nation.
Wheaton, Illinois, is largely white, reliably conservative, and almost exclusively Christian, with more churches per capita than any other city in the nation (if the Genus Edition of Trivial Pursuit is to be believed). With its sweeping lawns, un-ironic picket fences, and state championship football teams, it’s a town that spawned both Saturday Night Live legend John Belushi and Watergate investigative journalist Bob Woodward. This makes perfect sense to those of us who grew up there: a profane sense of humor, and an appreciation for the fact that things are not always as they seem, can serve you well in Wheaton.
My parents considered themselves progressives—it sometimes felt like they were the only liberals in the entire town. But my mother was a beloved grade-school teacher who was disinclined to discuss politics or religion with any vehemence. And my siblings and I had been raised to be high-achieving, non-confrontational, and polite in the extreme—a trifecta of qualities that seemed to cancel out our deviations from Wheaton’s political norms, such as the occasional school paper editorial arguing for the rights of striking workers, or the loud-enough-for-the-neighbors-to-hear playing of the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” on Sundays. Even my father, a cigarette-smoking, Henry David Thoreau–reading environmentalist— we like our contradictions in my family—was largely tolerated in Wheaton (mostly because he was married to my mother).
The truth is that though I wanted desperately to get out of Wheaton, and decried my hometown in the way that any self-respecting teenager with liberal pretensions should, I wasn’t entirely unhappy there. It was a place that represented the myth of America, and growing up there, I was almost never touched by our country’s colder, harder facts. Over the dinner table, my father might heap scorn on businessmen (in his vernacular, “businessman” meant anyone who was not a teacher or a doctor) and rage against Ronald Reagan’s gutting of the Environmental Protection Agency. But those businessmen were our neighbors, and the sky was clear and blue over Wheaton, Illinois. My father was raging against a machine that remained an abstraction to his own children—in fact, it was a machine that had largely benefitted us. It took a long time for the implications of that contradiction to make any sort of sense to me.
Politicians and pundits and PBS documentarians talk about the “American experience,” but in truth there is no such thing. There are instead American experiences—millions of them—and the collective story that they tell can be as brutal as it is beautiful.
I found myself thinking quite a lot about all of this when I traveled to the West African nation of Senegal. I was the only American member of a large delegation of artists and activists brought together by Art Works for Change, an organization that uses arts programs to raise awareness of human rights, social justice, and environmental issues. We had come to engage Senegalese students in a dialogue about gender-based violence, an ambitious but critically important task in a country where an upsurge in group rapes and the persistence of female genital cutting (FGC) are both pressing issues. And from the moment that I touched down in Dakar, Senegal’s capital, my American identity was a focal point.
“Are you an American?” was invariably one of the first questions I was asked when meeting people, and my “Yes, I’m from Chicago,” was always met with a fresh round of effusions, often expressed in English: I love America! President Obama! Kanye! Can I listen to your iPod? It was America-love as a series of T-shirt slogans, genuine but light as air. And almost everywhere I went, I encountered some version of it.
Yet toward the end of our trip, in the Kolda region of Senegal, I encountered a view of America that was moving in a different and far deeper way. A group of female elders—referred to by the Senegalese as les grand-mères—had joined our delegation at a local middle school in order to reinforce our anti-violence message. On the makeshift dais that morning, I was seated next to Kun Kande Balde, a Senegalese woman of about seventy. Kun Kande was soft spoken and elegant, dressed in a blue and gold boubou, the voluminous traditional gown with matching head wrap that more traditional Senegalese women often favor. She spoke Fula and French, and I spoke English (and barely any French), so we talked as best we could before she rose to address the hundreds of students assembled under an ancient baobab tree in the sand and dirt schoolyard.
And then this dignified, quiet woman began to speak, and she became a new person altogether. To say that Kun Kande spoke is actually an understatement: what she did was command. She had a powerful, ringing voice, and as she addressed the students in French, she gestured and reached upward and then outward with both hands, rocking and swaying to her own words. The United Nations representative seated next to me interpreted so that I could understand what she was saying.
Kun Kande shared the story of her own history of violence and spoke of the violence visited upon millions of African women before her. She told the students that forced marriage and female genital cutting were—at last—against Senegalese national law, gesturing triumphantly with her right fist as she said those words. And she called on the girls present to use their own voices in the fight to end violence. “You must express yourselves! You must not be quiet about what is happening to you, to your daughters, to your mothers!”
She then turned, gestured to me, and cried out, “Your stories matter so much that even the Americans have come to hear you!” In response to this, the students applauded and stamped their feet in the dirt school courtyard, as a “Les English sont ici!” floated into the air with the billowing dust.
I was actually the only American present, but no matter. I was a symbol of something bigger and broader, a stand-in for a country that loomed so large here that an African elder who had never set foot on its shores invoked it to add force to her call for an end to gender-based violence. Her America was not primarily a place, or an idea, or even an ideal. It was a promise.
America, of course, has always been very good at promise. But our actual progress on women’s issues has far too often been of the two steps forward, one step back variety. I had left for Senegal during a silly, sad season in our national political life. Re-authorization of the Violence Against Women Act, the landmark civil law rights law passed in 1994 with bipartisan support, had been held up for months by extremists in Congress claiming that its vital programs were “feminist pork” (it ultimately passed). Fresh reports of sexual violence in the US military seemed to emerge almost daily. And despite the twenty-five-year struggle of women’s rights and human rights advocates, the United States remains one of the few countries unwilling to ratify the United Nation’s Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, a vital treaty designed to bring equality to women across the globe.
The chasm between our American laws and purported values on violence against women and the lived reality for millions of victims of such violence felt awfully wide to me when I left for West Africa. Yet here, America still serves as a beacon for women’s rights. In the now famous words of President Kennedy, a man who was himself no stranger to contradictions, Americans are “unwilling to witness or permit that slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home, and around the world.” The dual obligation he summoned—creating a just nation and fighting for justice beyond our borders—is one we have not, as a nation, always met. But on much of the African continent, it is an obligation that is seen as essentially and truly American.
I did not think of any of this as Kun Kande walked back to her seat. What I thought about was the extraordinary power of her person, and her words. Vous etes magnifique, I wrote on a page I tore from my journal and handed to her as the next speaker rose to address the students. She read the note, turned, and pointed to me. “Non, vous etes magnifique,” she said with a laugh. I was not sure if she meant me, or my country. Perhaps the distinction didn’t much matter.
In the world according to the sentimentalists, this would be the moment when I see America through the eyes of someone who had never known its freedoms and come to love my country more deeply than I ever had before. But the feeling Kun Kande’s words sparked in me was not love of country, but a sort of longing: I wanted America to more often be all of the glorious things it is believed to be. I wanted the promise of my country fulfilled.
I left Dakar a week later, flew through Paris, and was shocked back into my first-world sensibility by the luxury mall that is the Charles de Gaulle Airport. Twenty-four hours later, I was home. On the day I arrived, the Chicago Tribune reported that a Congo army battalion that stood accused of mass rape had been trained by the United States. Somewhere in a village in Senegal, a deep belief in the promise of America remained, undiminished. But here in the United States, it was time to get back to work.
Anne K. Ream is a Chicago-based writer and the founder of The Voices and Faces Project, an award-winning storytelling initiative created to bring the testimonies of survivors of gender-based violence to the attention of the public. Excerpted from “Lived Through This: Listening to the Stories of Sexual Violence Survivors,” now available in paperback.