“Dad, what in the world am I supposed to say to him? He talks to world leaders!”
“How about ‘hello’?”
I sat at a table with my father at a Washington, D.C. restaurant, but eating felt like an impossibility. Nerves overtook me. I felt sick.
In an hour, I’d be meeting the president of the United States.
Never had I been more nervous. My dad, a former Clinton employee from the late 70s, had received an invitation to the White House from his old boss. All of eleven, I joined him.
As a child my friends read comics; I read little history books. Children’s stories of civil rights leaders, of women like Ida B. Wells and Susan B. Anthony, and American icons littered my room. The women and men in those stories kept me up at night. How did Harriet Tubman not lose hope? How did Rosa Parks get her courage? What gave FDR strength?
Maybe most children don’t pore over books about women’s suffrage, but nearly every young person spends time dreaming of heroes.
Back then I made little distinction between mainstream, elected leaders—like President Clinton—and those who challenged the status quo, often at great cost.
After meeting President Clinton in the Oval Office, I decided I’d go into politics. I wanted to be, I told my mom, a “real-life superhero.” And, as I became a teenager, even through bouts of severe depression, that hope persisted.
In my sophomore year of high school Spider-Man 2 came out; one scene still gives me chils. Many know it as the ‘Aunt May scene.’ Peter Parker asks her why a neighborhood boy, Henry, wants to be Spider-Man. She replies:
He knows a hero when he sees one. Too few characters out there flying around like that, saving old girls like me. And Lord knows, kids like Henry need a hero. Courageous, self-sacrificing people. Setting examples for all of us. Everybody loves a hero. People line up for them, cheer them, scream their names. And years later, they’ll tell how they stood in the rain for hours just to get a glimpse of the one who taught them how to hold on a second longer.
I believe there’s a hero in all of us, that keeps us honest, gives us strength, makes us noble, and finally allows us to die with pride, even though sometimes we have to be steady, and give up the thing we want the most. Even our dreams.
“I believe there’s a hero in all of us.” It’s that line that has, over the years, kept me believing. But Aunt May got a couple things wrong.
When a person is truly courageous and self-sacrificing, they draw disdain, even rage. Everyone may love Dr. King now—or, at least, love to quote him, no matter their political views—but in life, many reviled him. When Dr. King spoke out against the war in Vietnam, other black leaders criticized him, and President Johnson felt betrayed.
A hero cannot be in it because she wants people to line up for her, cheer her, scream her name. Whether it’s in comics or in real human rights movements, heroes are not celebrated. Heroes are despised. Heroes are ignored and, so often, unknown. And sometimes, heroes are killed.
To be a hero means speaking truth to power. Heroes advocate for freedom, not the status quo; for hope, not hate; for the presence of justice, not the absence of tension. Heroes call us to be better versions of ourselves.
Here at the end of 2014, I find myself, again, dreaming of heroes. I look around at the public sphere and, at first glance, I don’t see many. The actions of officials—local and state—in Missouri surrounding the Ferguson situation have been troubling. A ‘peace’ “won” with tanks and riot gear is no peace at all. Too many appear more interested in policing the actions of poor and working-class blacks than with working with them to help improve their lives.
While politicians get the credit, they have almost never been the true heroes. The Kennedy brothers and Johnson were good-hearted men—men who waited a long time to get involved in civil rights issues. They did so because they were pushed and prodded, by Dr. King and by thousands of others. Black people (and a few white ones) were being attacked and sometimes lynched, and yet they waited, because they feared losing the South.
I met one of my childhood heroes, Bill Clinton. I later learned he was willing to hurt people by cutting (though he called it reforming) welfare. He was willing to compromise and buy into—or at least not challenge–myths about people, from poor blacks to folks in the LGBT community—to score political victories.
Mr. Clinton was incredibly kind to me in the White House that day in 1999. By most accounts, he genuinely loves people. But is he a hero? Is Barack Obama? Are any politicians? I’m not sure.
I don’t think (most) politicians are evil. Politics is complicated, and messy, and requires compromise. Yet I still dream of heroes.
And if we look harder, we will find them—being shouted at, harassed online, and ignored or shamed or misunderstood by the public. There’s one other thing Aunt May got wrong: heroes need not give up their dreams. Heroes inspire us to join their dreams.
Frederick Douglass dreamed of a day when black folks could truly celebrate the Fourth of July. Sojourner Truth dreamed her society might answer her “Yes!” when she asked, “Ain’t I a woman?” Mary White Ovington dreamed her white people such as herself would join the struggle for racial equality. Ida B. Wells dreamed of a nation without lynching. James Weldon Johnson dreamed we might ‘Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing.’ At the March on Washington, gospel singer Mahalia Jackson implored Dr. King to “tell ’em about the dream, Martin.”
And today: sportswriter Jessica Luther dreams of a sports world without intimate partner violence and with people in power who believe the victims. Elon James White dreams that men will take responsibility for their public actions. Anita Sarkeesian and others dream of a gaming community less hostile to women.
The day after Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, I scoured the Internet every five minutes to see if someone in Denver had organized a vigil or protest to honor Mr. Brown’s life. I checked church websites and searched on Twitter. Nothing. Finally, I saw one. I tweeted out seeing if anyone would join us in a peaceful vigil.
A few people responded. We’d meet near Civic Center Park. I told my roommate Kierstin about it, and ten minutes later, she came downstairs with markers and posters. “Let’s make signs.”
That first night, there were nine of us out there. Numerous cars honked their support. Two people heckled us. Bolstered by Kierstin’s support, we kept tweeting. A few days later, over 100 showed up for a vigil. A few days later we held a march through Denver in solidarity with the Ferguson protestors, at least 300 strong.
On those days, and many since, Kierstin has been a hero. I’ve met many others. They are not famous. Many do not have official titles and positions. But from them I have learned: heroism means showing up. Heroism means pushing officials to do better, to be better, to build a more inclusive world.
Our country, our world–we need leadership. We need heroes. This can be done without hating the “other side.” It can be done through love, even of our adversaries. But it cannot be done without the willingness to be despised, to be heckled, to be ignored.
After all this time, I still dream of heroes. And despite the hateful rhetoric, despite the fear that rules so many, I still believe there’s a hero in all of us.