It was a relentless winter in DC this year, in more ways than one. Spring is finally here, but it was touch and go for a while as if Spring wasn’t sure whether it wanted to come at all. Most of the early cherry buds wilted on the branch because of a late, icy spell and Washington’s beautiful magnolia blossoms were completely obliterated. I missed the riot of colour and brightness these early blooms gave to the city, but there was one ray of sunshine, no matter the weather – the rainbow flags. They fly gracefully throughout our Washington neighbourhood and are a salve for my eyes and spirit.
We live in the comfortable, verdant suburb of Chevy Chase in the North West quadrant of DC. Picturesque, colonial houses line the streets like a stage set for Little House on the Prairie. Unfairly perhaps, I was initially a little dismayed at how perfectly prim and proper it felt here, a little too well-heeled and not really as diverse as I had hoped. All the energy of the city seemed concentrated further downtown.
In the early days after Trump won the election, Vice President elect Mike Pence moved temporarily into a house in our neighbourhood, a white colonial on Tennyson Street, right at the heart of Chevy Chase. Disgruntled neighbours on the street, eager to make some form of peaceful protest, hung rainbow pride flags outside their homes. The flags were a colourful counter to Pence’s conservative policy positions on gay rights and made an appeal for tolerance and diversity to the incoming administration. Chevy Chase, both fiercely liberal Democratic and complacently middle class, was enthusiastic but not entirely. When one neighbour wrote in to the community neighbourhood mailing list saying that Pence and his family should be welcomed or at the very least left alone rather than bombarded with symbols opposing his view, the emails flew fast and furious, shedding light on the issues dividing this affluent suburb in the country’s capital.
We had moved into our own quaint colonial house in Chevy Chase almost a year earlier when the Trump nomination seemed laughable and unrealistic. Winter blizzards had rampaged through the city and we were in shock after being transplanted from a balmy Australian summer. We never imagined our time here would be lived out under the shadow of a Trump administration. Neither, of course, did many of the Americans living complacently in our lopsidedly liberal Washington bubble. As Australian-Jewish expats eager for a sea-change, it was hard not to feel that we had catastrophically mistimed our American adventure. Struck with disbelief and despair when Trump was elected President, I wondered if we could ever find our place in America while also attempting to adapt, as a family, to living in a new country.
The day after Trump’s inauguration, we participated in the Women’s March. My children held hand-made placards calling for equality and chanted along with the shuffling crowds “This is what democracy looks like.” I remember a moment; I had been busy keeping my children close, concerned they would get lost in the throng, and then looked up. A colourful sea of people and placards stretched into the distance. They undulated like a great rising wave, hopeful and momentous, and we were a part of it. In a period of difficult acclimatisation, it was perhaps my first moment in America when I felt I moved from bystander to participant and realised, strangely, that Trump may inadvertently have opened the door to a sense of involvement and engagement I never expected.
My eldest daughter, the most bereft of my children in our first months here but now well adapted, has fallen hard for the hip-hop Broadway musical, Hamilton. Written by Lin Manuel Miranda, and based on the life, and death by duel, of one of America’s founding fathers, she has memorised virtually all the lyrics. The soundtrack is on repeat in our house and accompanies our morning routine and virtually every family car ride(!). Even my youngest sings proudly along with her siblings. “Immigrants, we get the job done” they shout out, not quite realising how painfully relevant those words are in the current climate of ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) raids and the malicious Muslim bans.
Hamilton’s only competition is with my husband’s obsessive replay of Pete Seeger’s uncensored version of This Land is Your Land.
Echoing this sentiment and in solidarity with our neighbours, we also hung a flag outside our daughter’s window. At first, only a handful appeared in the neighbourhood, but the flag story got the attention of the media and even more so after LGBTQ activists organised a “Queer Dance Party outside Mike Pence’s house” days before Trump took office. The rainbow seed was planted and Chevy Chase, our unlikely hero, became a little outpost of resistance. The flags started to flower, spreading from house to house and street to street, colouring our neighbourhood. Pence has long since moved to his permanent residence and Trump has dug in, but the flags remain and continue to spread. They are not going anywhere. Hung from flag poles and porticoes, draped lovingly out of upper storey windows and even dangling on tree branches, the rainbow flags move softly in the wind, whispering to passersby.
Against the mute, frozen background of the Washington winter, the rainbow flags saturated the scene with colour. They still offer warmth and the promise of brighter days. They declare their allegiance but they also say “You are welcome here. This land was made for you and me.” They are the city’s olive branch to all those who feel afraid and excluded in America now. In the deep undoing of trust and safety that is continually unfolding, they offer their colourful hand in comfort and solidarity.
When we’ve been travelling far from home, it’s easy to know we have crossed back into Chevy Chase. The rainbows start to appear, as if out of the blue, welcoming us. I am an outsider in this land, but in the car my children sing full-pelt along with Lin Manuel Miranda, “Just like my country, I’m young scrappy and hungry. And I’m not throwing away my shot.” The flags flutter in the breeze and I know I am almost home.
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