On Our Best Days, We Elect Them Homecoming Queen

Al Franken, Muna Abdulahi, and the potential expansiveness of American identity

RAND MIDDLETON | TRIBUNE
US Sen. Al Franken is shown June 5, 2016 at the Willmar Senior High School graduation of Muna Abdulahi. Rand Middleton/Tribune file photo. Original here.

Tuesday night, while driving home from a not-very-good public talk about artificial intelligence, radio station KQED was rebroadcasting a City Arts & Lectures interview with Senator Al Franken. It touched us, serving as a reminder of the face-to-face decency our country is sometimes capable of achieving. We’re sharing it for that reason: as a hopeful anecdote.

City Arts doesn’t archive its audio, so we’re relying on an excerpt from Franken’s new memoir, Al Franken, Giant of the Senate, to share the story with you. Here it is, with Franken narrating in the first person:

Two days before the 2016 election, Donald Trump landed his gaudy plane at the Minneapolis–St. Paul airport, making his first public appearance in our state just in time to spread his trademark blend of hate, fear, and ignorance—this time targeting our Somali-Minnesotan community.

Somalis started coming to America in large numbers during a civil war in the early 1990s. Many families had spent years in refugee camps in Kenya and elsewhere in Africa. About fifty thousand Somali refugees now live in Minnesota—many of them in the Twin Cities, but not all. Many smaller cities and communities around the state have significant Somali populations.

At the time, Trump was attacking Hillary Clinton’s plan to admit sixty-five thousand refugees out of the millions of people fleeing Syria in the worst refugee crisis since World War II… He wasn’t talking about Syrian refugees. So far, Minnesota has admitted twenty-eight of them. He was talking about the Somalis who have been here for years, people who are an important part of our state’s fabric.

“Here in Minnesota you have seen firsthand the problems caused with faulty refugee vetting, with large numbers of Somali refugees coming into your state,” Trump told the rally. He was referring to an incident two months earlier in which a young Somali man wielding a knife had injured nine people at a shopping mall in St. Cloud before being killed by an off-duty cop. The assailant had come to America when he was four months old. Which makes it kind of hard to buy that the incident was a result of “faulty vetting.” …

“You’ve suffered enough,” [Trump] snarled, talking about the presence of Somali people in our communities.

That’s kind of how Trump’s entire campaign went. His arguments were rarely rooted in fact, but they frequently carried a tinge of racism and paranoia. And that’s what made it so upsetting when he won. How could that be what America chose? Is that really who we are? And if so, what’s the point of trying?

The truth, however, is that, at least in Minnesota, that’s not who we are.  

Where Donald Trump sees a state in which people suspect and resent their neighbors based on where they come from, I see a state where we look out for each other, because we believe that we’re all in this together. Trump might have found a clever way to channel the resentments of the white working class, and he sure does seem good at playing the media for fools, but he’s just plain wrong about what kind of people we are.

Willmar is an agricultural city of about twenty thousand in south-central Minnesota and the seat of Kandiyohi County, the largest turkey-producing county in the largest turkey-producing state in the nation. In June of last year, I took the unusual step of inviting myself to Willmar’s high school graduation. Not just for the free punch and cookies, but because I wanted to introduce the senior who had been voted by the graduating class to be their class speaker.

Her name was Muna Abdulahi, and she had been one of our Senate pages during her junior year. Her principal had recommended her to my office, and my staff told me that her essay and interview had been unbelievably impressive. So, the day the new class of pages arrived in the Senate, I went down to the floor to meet her in person.

Muna was easy to pick out of the group of thirty or so, being the only one wearing a hijab (headscarf) with her page uniform. I went up to her and said, “You look like a Minnesotan.”

Muna nodded and smiled. As we talked, I was struck by her poise and intelligence. A few weeks later, the ambassador from Somalia came to the Capitol to meet with a number of senators and members of Congress from states with large Somali communities. I invited Muna to come along so that the ambassador could meet her and see that a Somali Minnesotan was a Senate page.

The Class of 2016 at Willmar Senior High had 236 members. Perusing the list of graduates in the program, I estimated that about 60 percent were your garden-variety Scandinavian/German white Minnesotans, about 25 percent were Hispanic, and about 15 percent were Somali, with a few Asian Americans tossed in. The valedictorian, Maite Marin-Mera, had been born in Ecuador.

As the orchestra played “Pomp and Circumstance,” the graduates entered two by two, walking down the center aisle in their caps and gowns. Muna was up front, because “Abdulahi” was the first name alphabetically. She was holding hands with fellow senior Michelle Carlson, one of two Carlson twins to graduate that day.

The only way to tell Michelle and her twin sister, Mary, apart is that Mary has a slightly shorter haircut. Or maybe it’s Michelle. Otherwise, they’re identical—both are tall, both are brilliant (both graduated with highest honors), and both exude the same spirit of pure positivity and joy.

The whole day was like this. Maite gave a wonderful speech, and so did class president Tate Hovland (half Norwegian, half German), and both received enthusiastic ovations. I introduced Muna, who got a boisterous round of applause as she took the stage and a standing O when she finished.

When it came time to hand out diplomas, the crowd was told to hold their applause until the end. But they couldn’t help themselves. The moment Muna’s name was called, everyone erupted. Clapping, shouting, stomping on the bleachers—and it continued like that through each one of the 236 graduates. These kids loved each other.

The two hours I spent at that high school commencement were a tonic for the year of trash I’d been hearing about our country.  

Perhaps Donald Trump confused Minnesota with somewhere else. About a week after the election, I spoke to Gérard Araud, the French ambassador to the United States. He told me that in France, a Frenchman is someone who can tell you what village his family is from going back centuries. Immigrants never really get to become Frenchmen. It made me think back to the hideous massacre in Paris the year before.

Here in America, of course, we’re all immigrants. Except, of course, for Native Americans against whom we committed genocide. I’m a Jew, but I’m also an American. Muna is Somali, but she’s also an American. On Election Day, I ran into her on campus at the University of Minnesota, where I was getting out the vote for Hillary. She told me that her sister, Anisa, had been voted homecoming queen.

That’s who we are. In places like France, they isolate their refugees and immigrants. In America, we elect them homecoming queen. 

– From the book Al Franken, Giant of the Senate. Copyright 2017 by Al Franken.

The poignancy of the story is somewhat diminished in the writeup. In the City Arts broadcast, Franken’s voice broke as he recounted the graduation. He sounded sincere.

We hope there’s something redeeming in the fact that some, perhaps many, of our elected leaders care about creating a decent society. We believe there are roots of possibility in many Americans’ understanding that one can be or become American, regardless of country of origin, ethnic heritage, or physical characteristics. The stories we tell about ourselves do help create a more humane reality.

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