With one foot in the door of the American dream, and one in the American nightmare, Wajahat Ali’s myriad experiences have led him down the path of fighting for justice.
To some, America may not “seem racist anymore,” but Ali, a writer, public speaker and former attorney, said this is not the case, and wants to make a three-step pitch to his Chautauqua audience.
Ali will give his lecture, “Go Back to Where You Came From: Or, How to Create the Ethnic Avengers,” at 2 p.m. Friday, July 29, in the Hall of Philosophy to close Week Five of the Interfaith Series Lecture “The Ethical Foundations of a Fully Functioning Democracy.”
He said he wants his audience to invest in “a multicultural coalition of the willing,” what he refers to as “the ethnic avengers.”
He wants Chautauquans to invest in hope during hopeless times, and to understand why diversity and inclusivity is a win for everyone.
“I can tell you as a Brown dude and as a Muslim, as a person who has been living this and talking about this for a long time, that many of our fellow Americans thought that the election of Obama, in particular, signaled a post-racial America,” Ali said.
He realized this as people referred to racism as “an old thing” and said to “stop whining and complaining, we’ve elected Obama.” Ali said this dialogue then did a complete 180 after the 2020 murder of George Floyd.
“That seemed to be an inflection point for many people to be like, ‘Oh we’ve got to talk about this,’ ” Ali said. “There’s a moment when people realize, ‘Oh, you have to fight for democracy. You have to fight for rights. You have to fight for freedom. And this thing called America, we took for granted, which we assumed was a multiracial democracy — even that we have to fight for.’ ”
Ali said the list of everything going wrong in America — climate change, human rights issues and abortion restrictions, to name a few — is “very depressing,” and can make some people seem selfish or cynical when it comes to fighting for rights.
“I think what we have witnessed, and are witnessing right now, is that it requires work,” Ali said. “But it also requires people to throw down in the ring and (realize) the avengers aren’t coming. You can’t outsource this problem.”
Describing his life as a constant back and forth flip of rags to riches, Ali said he has a unique experience of what America looks like through the lens of both the dream and the nightmare. He said he started out as a privileged suburban kid and lost everything after 9/11; his parents were in jail and lost their money, their credit and healthcare coverage, which led to the American nightmare.
Another formative experience for Ali occurred 10 years ago, when he had a near-death experience while at the gym. He had the pre-existing heart condition atrial fibrillation, and when he was on the treadmill, his heart rate spiked to 230 BPM, over double the average.
“It made no sense, because I wasn’t doing anything strenuous,” Ali said. “It was just a very light workout, and so as a result of that, they had to defibrillate me three times to reset my heart rate.”
He then went into congestive heart failure and pulmonary edema, and his lungs were filling up with water.
“I almost didn’t make it,” Ali said. “As a result of surviving that, and then finally having the surgery, I thought, ‘Life is short.’ My only regret was if I die alone, I should’ve invested in a relationship, in a marriage. That was my one mistake. I should have started a family.”
Knowing to some this may sound crazy, Ali said as soon as he thought about getting married and starting a family, his heart rate finally stabilized.
“Maybe this was a sign from the universe,” Ali said, “Then somehow, like eight months after that, boom, got married. Still married.”
Ali said he will include personal stories, such as this near-death experience, in his public speaking. While not too formulaic, he said he sustains a similar approach in most of his talks. First, he will make his three points, then tell a specific personal story, which he uses as a “Trojan Horse” to introduce the lecture theme, and make the lecture more of a conversation.
This will be Ali’s second time speaking at Chautauqua — most recently in conversation with James Fallows in 2017 to examine American perception of Muslims post-9/11.
Ali said he’s a pragmatist, not a “wide-eyed, naive optimist,” and he understands the demons America is currently facing. But he wants people to leave with the belief that America is still worth fighting for.
“That moment of urgency has to be acknowledged and has to be met with a forceful response,” Ali said. “It’s going to require everyone to step up.”