When this film journey began, never could I have imagined that 7 years later, I would be in the East Wing of the White House, waiting to present President Obama with the DVD of my film, A Lot Like You.
But there I was, sipping champagne with approximately 100 bisexual, transgendered, lesbian and gay activists from around the country, mingling with Vice President Joe Biden, Rahm Emanuel and other senior White House officials while casually stuffing extra cocktail napkins with the Presidential seal in my purse.
Then half an hour later, without much fanfare, I was face to face with the man himself.
In the note accompanying my gift to President Obama, I told him, “I wish I had read Dreams From My Father before embarking on my film journey, because your book would have uniquely prepared me for the family stories I was about to hear.” And it was true.
As a mixed-race, first-generation American filmmaker thinking about having kids, I felt compelled to understand the cultural roots of my Blackness. My father is a Chagga man, born and raised in Tanzania (East Africa) on a coffee farm on Mt Kilimanjaro. At 18, he received a scholarship to study in the US, where he met and married my mother, a fellow grad student from South Korea. My parents worked for 30 years as economists for the International Monetary Fund and World Bank before they retired and decided to move back to Tanzania…for good.
In 2004, I decided the best way for me to learn about Chagga culture would be to film my father’s efforts to fit back in to the family and culture he’d left behind 40 years earlier. So my partner and I quit our jobs, packed up our gear and bought one-way tickets to Tanzania. But during our 9 month shoot, I discovered more about both the beauty and the brutality of my Chagga roots, and the story of my film evolved into something quite different than I’d originally intended.
At the end of our shoot on Mt Kilimanjaro, I returned home feeling shell-shocked by the family stories I’d unearthed. So I turned to Dreams From My Father as a means of losing myself in someone else’s “journey of discovery.” But that escapist moment didn’t last long.
In his book, Obama traces his father’s footsteps back to Kenya, and shares stories he heard from the Luo side of his family about their lives growing up in the rural village of Alego. But before I finished the first chapter, I was trembling. I had never seen my life, my inner world, so accurately captured by someone else. I felt both exposed and validated. But the intensity was simply too much. So I shelved the book.
Only to take it down 3 months later to read the next 20 pages before having to shelve it again. Each time, the book revealed, in peculiar detail, stories that were far too familiar and personal, prompting my need to shelve the book yet again. My brain would be reeling from the striking similarities of our family’s stories. The lives that our respective fathers left behind in East Africa in order to come to America on scholarship, marry interracially, raise kids who grew up living overseas before moving back to live in their home country. And then our own respective journeys to find our sense of identity and belonging with both our US families and our families overseas.
With the frequent hiatuses, it took me over three years to finish his book. When I finally reached the section about his Luo Aunts, I was stunned. Obama shared stories about the discrimination and violence these women had experienced, their rites of passage, their marriage rituals. His Aunt Sarah was my Aunt Awonyisa. Their stories confirmed what my Chagga Aunts had told me years ago…stories I was still struggling to come to terms with.
Of course, the lens we bring to our respective lives is not identical. As a queer woman of color, a first generation American, a survivor, a mother, an activist and community organizer, I had my own journey to forge, my own connections to make, my own conclusions to draw. But his story dialed in to my feelings of overwhelm, of confusion, of grief, of fear of what it would mean to my various communities if I were to share these women’s stories with the general public. How would it be received, at home and abroad?
At the time I set out to make this film, Obama was the cool Illinois Senator who made occasional appearances on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, the young upstart who was about to rock the house at the 2004 Democratic National Convention.
Yet somehow I always knew this film would find its way to him. After reading his book, it felt like the least I could do—to return the favor of breaking isolation, bearing witness, sharing the fruits of my journey with someone who seemed uniquely positioned to relate to this story I have to tell.
So 2 months ago, when my dear friend Connie was invited to a White House reception in honor of LGBT Pride Month and asked me to join her as her “plus one,” it felt like the film’s path had finally been revealed. I just never expected that I would be the one to hand the film to President.
We had less than 2 weeks to plan. The reception was on a Tuesday afternoon. So we decided to fly direct from Seattle to DC, arriving at midnight the night before, and leaving early Wednesday morning (so I could be back in Seattle by noon to pick up my kid from preschool.) This whirlwind trip was bound to leave our heads spinning, but it was worth it.
The path to the White House’s Southeast entrance was lined with smiling cadets in dress whites showing the way. We passed through at least four security checkpoints where they checked our ID’s against the guest list (thanks to the Salahis) before making our way to the final checkpoint inside. This x-ray checkpoint was similar to airport security, and surprisingly, no less stringent. Everyone, security staff included, was extremely friendly…also not what I expected.
Once we cleared the last checkpoint, we were free to roam around the East Wing. The event was taking place upstairs in the State Room. I poked my head into every possible room along the way, soaking up the details, the furnishings, the seemingly candid (but clearly not) photos of first families. And I wondered what kind of life took place in this wing when it wasn’t opened to a bevy of joyous queer activists roaming the halls of a house they never expected to feel so welcomed in.
Coat and bag check was in the plush White House movie theater. So of course, I checked it out, imagining who might accompany me when the Obamas invite me back for a private screening of A Lot Like You…
We followed the sounds of the live band down the great hall lined with presidential portraits and up to the second floor where we found an open bar, hors d’oeuvres, and lots of very happy people.
With wine in hand, I continued poking my head into all the upstairs rooms. There was the Green Room (which I’d seen many times on the West Wing,) and a stunning lounge with huge portraits of the first ladies on all the walls. It took me a while to realize that this was, in fact, the Ladies’ Room.
Connie introduced me to a long time colleague in the domestic violence movement, and I discovered that she was the person behind our invitation. Turns out, she is now the White House Advisor on Violence Against Women. And when she heard about my film, she asked how she could get her hands on a copy for herself and the White House liaison on Women’s Issues. I was more than happy to share the few extra DVDs I just happened to have in my purse with her.
Staking out my place next to the podium, I was more than happy to snap shots of folks in front of the podium and chat with whoever was around. When President Obama and Vice President Biden finally came out, the crowd cheered raucously. From the sounds of it, I think we’d all taken full advantage of the open bar.
- To see Obama’s LGBT Pride reception address: http://www.whitehouse.gov/photos-and-video/video/lgbt-pride-reception#
- To read the full transcript: http://blogs.suntimes.com/sweet/2010/06/obama_at_gay_pride_month_recep.html
I was completely moved that the leader of our nation was addressing us with such concern, appreciation and respect. Not only as LGBT folks, but as grassroots activists and organizers who understand what it takes to bring about change. He thanked us for our bravery, for our commitment, and promised to stand alongside us, fighting and advocating on our behalf to make sure that everyone has equal access to the same rights, benefits, and protection under the law.
What none of us knew was that, on that day, while we were all downing champagne (and completely off the grid), Obama was right in the middle of the whole McChrystal firing ordeal, with his role as Commander in Chief being challenged by the highest levels of the military. And yet, even amidst all that heat, he didn’t shy away from what he felt was right. He took his stand alongside us, reaffirming his commitment to repeal Don’t Ask Don’t Tell within his presidency.
If someone told me he did nothing else that day but prepare for his 30 minutes with us, I would have believed them. The quality of his presence is so striking. It’s as if he brings all of who he is into every moment. To look at him is to look at a man who is completely integrated, comfortable in his skin, sure of who he is and where he comes from. And to be in the presence of that…to see what that looks like…is a tremendous gift.
I know his exploration into his family’s roots played a significant role in shaping him. So I ended my note to Obama saying, “I hope this film is as evocative of your first trip back home as your book was of mine…”
And while I’m sure he will be struck by the similarities in our families’ stories, I do hope it doesn’t take him 3 years to finish my film…