Alabama's Special Election Was An Exercise In Hope

Earlier this year, I penned a letter to our outgoing Senator, incoming US Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

You aren’t supposed to do this in writing, but I’ll reveal what was behind that curtain. As a writer, I employed some rhetorical techniques, such as:

  • Establish a connection (we’re both from Mobile; I graduated from his daughter’s high school)
  • Establish credibility (I study politics and am an immigrant who’s become a professor of writing)
  • Appeal to emotion, logic, and ethics (my family’s been through a lot and survived, despite our poverty and the very real odds against us)

My students who’ve read that letter comment on its very strange tone, considering the situations and evidence I offered.

That was a tone of hope, hope that maybe Attorney General Sessions would read my impassioned words detailing the plight my family endured as refugees trying to resettle and contemplate his role in upholding justice under that lens. (To be clear: I was not trying to paint a picture that all refugees go through the same ordeals or misfortunes, or that these ordeals or misfortunes are limited to immigrants and refugees but extend to others suffering poverty or marginalization. Simply, I was trying to say, it’s a hard knock life, and those who are victims of society are the ones who most need the protections of justice.)

And despite that plea and the admirable pleas of many others, in the past year, I watched US Attorney General Jeff Sessions renew a failing war on drugs, discuss suppressive voter identification laws, and reignite a closed case investigating former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, while the Children’s Health Insurance Program lapsed, a ridiculous last-minute tax bill was hastily scrawled in the margins of a typed document, and repeated attacks on religious freedom and minorities were mounted.

To say that I lost hope would be an understatement.

Hope is a tenuous thing. It is perhaps even considered futile or juvenile in some regards.

We hope for things like Santa being real or climate change not being real. We hope for things despite facts that indicate that what we feel or desire is not aligned with the reality presented to us.

And it can be tiring to continue hoping, especially when you believe in issues of social justice, when facts are typically stacked against you.

This is the case particularly for Alabama, when facts are something like:

  • Alabama, with its history of systemic racism that include the Jim Crow Laws, has been challenged for voter suppression laws that quell minority votes.
  • The last Alabama Democrat elected to the US Senate happened over 25 years ago.
  • Republican voters went on record to say that they would rather have a molester of young girls in office than a Democrat.

A friend of mine recently discussed that he left Alabama, not because of an intense desire for adventure, but because he just knew that he had to go. That was probably true for me and many others I knew. While Alabama has so much to offer, a history of bigotry and racism can be very intimidating for a minority or someone who doesn’t fit the standards of Southern traditions.

Among the displaced Alabamians I know –- and there are many of us -– we feel a camaraderie. We know what makes Alabama great. Maybe it’s the football. Or the great Gulf seafood. Maybe it’s the rolling farmlands or the hills leading to the Vulcan statue in Birmingham or the white sand that stretches to the warm Gulf waters. We all know that Alabama is great, that it has good people, and that there is a love there that you cannot replicate.

But we also have been caught in a paradox: having left Alabama for the reality of what exists in terms of legislation and equity, but feeling a deep kinship for those we left and defending our home state whenever it was attacked.

Which was often.

Alabama only makes the news when oak trees are poisoned because of a football rivalry, when a “family values” governor resigns because of hiding an affair, when a leprechaun is reported in a tree, when a twice-removed justice and accused child molester becomes a viable candidate. To hold onto hope, that maybe, just maybe, your state or someone representing your state, will do something truly admirable when the facts say otherwise is an exercise in madness. Almost everyone I spoke to -– current residents and those removed –- repeated the same refrain: “It won’t happen. You know Alabama. Jones will lose.”

But not tonight.

Tonight, the election of Doug Jones is what hope is made of. Jones has been an admirable, yet controversial public servant, convicting one of the last remaining KKK members responsible for the 1963 bombing of a black Baptist church that killed 4 little girls and advocating for women’s rights in pro-life Alabama.

These are important points to note because in a state that is nationally known more for episodes of its ugliness than for its beauty, Jones pulled off what was deemed as impossible: he won a Republican-held seat that was endorsed by a newly-elected Republican president in a Republican state. Running a clean campaign, he convinced highly partisan voters to set aside labels of “R” and “D” and instead consider what integrity, family values, and equality truly meant.

Doug Jones, I would love to meet you one day, to thank you for achieving – yet again – what was deemed as the impossible. You are the embodiment of what many of us always hoped would happen in Alabama politics, and I hope you make us proud on the national stage.

I also want to give credit to the fact that Alabama’s new Senator-elect was supported by a wide array of canvassers and supporters, a groundswell of volunteers who dared to believe and hope. Among those were many friends I made growing up, who decided to stay when others of us left. These are the friends who let hope override cynicism and fought to overcome voter suppression laws, fake news, and the manipulation of Christian values to depict a bona fide Christian as a baby killer.

Tonight, I tip my hat to you, Doug Jones, for empowering those who have been without voices, and also to those who voted for and supported you. 

I couldn’t be prouder of where I’m from in this moment, my dear, sweet home Alabama. For those of us who left, I think it’s fair to say, we now feel we can come home.