What does a revolutionary look like?


Nadine Waiganjo

Every kid has dreams of reaching all four corners of the Earth when they’re older. To them, the world is vast and endless. When you’re young, you can be an astronaut, a painter, a doctor, or nothing at all. It was so possible and real, it felt like the future could be touched — you just had to stretch your hand out.

Then, as you grow, your mother tells you a story of how she was denied a job because she was overqualified. You start to notice that in certain stores, the cashiers watch you a little too closely. Donald Trump is elected. With each instance, the world gets smaller and smaller, until its circumference encloses just your toes.

I didn’t cry when Trump was elected, and I wasn’t particularly angry either. My world had always ended at the tip of my toes anyway, and not much has changed then. Maybe the hatred that I had always known existed had just gotten louder; maybe I just had to avoid the United States for a while. That was not really an issue, and my focus at the time was getting into university. When I got here, I thought things would be different, and my world would open up. 

Then I graduated from high school and entered my first year of university, and discovered that Jair Bolsonaro was running for president in Brazil. That was when things began to shift for me, because I had deluded myself into believing that the Trump mindset was confined to America. It was becoming increasingly difficult to imagine a future for myself where I was happy and without struggle. It seemed like day in and day out, there was something else making it very clear that it’s just not in the cards for me. Gender equality, the destruction of systemic racism, and the dismantlement of extractive capitalism were all becoming figments of my imagination.  

But it’s like this.

I’m attending this school where I can count on my hands the number of Black people I pass between classes. It’s prestigious: the number-one university in the country, and in the top 20 in the world. 

I have to think before I speak, and I think, “Is this aggressive?” But I’m just asking for a pencil, introducing myself, existing, and I always wonder if it’s too much. Every time I wonder if I’d get farther by diluting myself. If I were to switch my voice, if I didn’t make eye contact, if I smiled more, or smiled too much. 

Then, I think of my mother and the dreams she had at 24, when I had just been born. Her concerns for raising me in Kenya weren’t focused on education — she herself already had her first postsecondary degree. Rather, the limitations she hoped to escape were the feelings that the country she was born and had grown up in didn’t belong to her. It felt, instead, like it belonged to a select few. The elites promoted structures of tribalism to ensure that they kept their place in society, to the point where your tribe belonging could hinder you if you applied for a job.

In America, that would be different. There, her child would be more than just her tribe. She could travel as far as her abilities could take her — her world would be infinite. Then, as she sat during her morning commute in Washington, DC, the day after Trump was elected, she wondered what the point of it all was. She was stuck constantly looking over her shoulder, having to always prove herself when others didn’t have to, only to have her children do the same.

It’s so incredibly tiring to wait around for it all to end, telling yourself over and over again this election will be the one, and that there’s a chance things can be different. But they won’t. Trump was elected, as was the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte, and then Bolsonaro, and then the UK’s Boris Johnson, and then and then and then. The fact is, the powers that be aren’t listening to my prayers, or those of any other marginalized person. The world is shifting in a way that’s making it clear that there’s a large population of people who become unhinged by my existence and that of people like me. 

However, that’s not the most upsetting part. What hurts the most is imagining a better world. One that is fueled by moments when you’re deep in reality, getting followed around a store or trying to reassure some jittery white lady that you aren’t going to rob her by pulling up the corners of your mouth up as far as they can possibly go, or when Trump is casually dehumanizing you on your screen. It hurts like hell in these moments to imagine a world where it is perfectly ordinary — maybe even boring — for you to just be.

But it doesn’t exist, so what future am I working toward? What am I paying all these thousands of dollars for? To confirm that the life I’m living is just that much more difficult? I’ve tried convincing myself that the only way to survive is to always fight back, but it’s exhausting. Being indignant all the time isn’t the kind of fuel I thought it would be, nor is it effective. I can be as angry as I want — these figures are still going to be elected, their messages are still going to be spread. So where does that leave me? I’m asking myself the same question as my mother: what’s the point?

The answer is that there isn’t one. I have been thrust into a life where every step I take is revolutionary; every time I am content, I am happy, I am hopeful, I am acting in resistance to a world that is increasingly working to ensure that I am not. It is completely unfair that it’s the life I have — and it’s certainly not the one my mother dreamed for me on that plane to Baltimore — but it will not change unless I do it myself. I must force my world to expand to its endless possibilities, despite those who’d rather shrink it.

Resistance doesn’t have to look like screaming in the street, or throwing a brick through a window — though I’m not opposed to those actions at all. It can look like going to school, loving your children, or simply just taking up space in the world. With all the countries that are swinging to the far right, resistance means recognizing that it takes an immense amount of strength and audacity to keep going in a world that increasingly wants you to stop.

My mother has overcome hardships that I cannot imagine just so that she and her children could survive. The luxury of being meek hasn’t been awarded to her. To fall into the shadows is to become the very thing she was running from, and exactly what that endless list of leaders wants. And even as the world rears its ugly head to attack her, she has faith that it will be different, that things will change.

So I am not fearful of the progressively more hateful world that lies before me, because it’s not mine. I reject the claim that the terror around me should have me falling into hopelessness, because my world, the one I that I live in which stretches far past the tip of my toes, is the one where I am a revolutionary. It is vast, and it is endless, and it is filled with so much possibility that when I resist, when I hold my shoulders back, when I speak loudly and dare to exist, I hold the future, right there, in the palm of my hand.

Photos courtesy of
Collage by Stephanie Bai
Illustration by Aditi Putcha

Related Articles

The part with thorns

Content warning: this article contains mentions of emotional abuse. We spend lifetimes trying to undo our own spines.  — Alison Malee  I am not a

(In)visible so(u)litude

CHEESE: Am I who you think I am? STRANDED: I take compliments the way I take my coffee. I don’t drink coffee. THE MAN: masculinity