Released just days before the conclusion of this past election – and the official end of the Obama era – We Hold These Truths(WHTT) by D.C.’s own David Mitchell couldn’t have come at a better time. As an African American woman, I will never forget the emotions I felt when “Senator Obama” was officially declared “President Obama”. I will always remember the look of pride and pure happiness on the faces of my family, the videos of cheering crowds across the world, and the excitement felt even in my little apartment as I watched the results with my college roommate. WHTT dives deeper into the emotions felt during and after that historic election, by telling the story of Al Carpenter, a young African-American Ivy League law school grad, who learns – while experiencing his own trials and triumphs – that despite one’s college degrees and accolades, not all Americans are into “hope” and “change” as they claimed to be in 2008.
I’m sure I couldn’t come close to describing the novel as well the author himself, so I sat down with David to learn more about the novel and the inspiration behind it.
Author David Mitchell
(DC) What’s your story? What was your childhood and professional career like?
(DM) I grew up in Washington, D.C. where I was raised by a single mom. Last week, at the book release event for my debut novel, We Hold These Truths, someone asked my mother to share her secret for raising a successful young black man in Washington, D.C. Her answer was, “I cooked him a hot breakfast every morning.” I guess the little things can go a long way.
I attended public schools through eighth grade, when my mother decided I needed a “different” experience. I spent grades nine through twelve at Gonzaga College High School. I always tell people I became a man during my time at Gonzaga. I think the Jesuits are just really skilled at teaching young men how to do the right things, and cultivating in them a sense of compassion for the needy and a habit of taking affirmative action to help others.
I graduated from Yale College in ’04 with a degree in History, and after spending two years working as a paralegal in D.C., I moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts to begin studies at Harvard Law School. After graduation in June 2009, I moved to North Carolina to serve as deputy campaign manager on a U.S. Senate campaign. I didn’t know it at the time, but that experience would prove to be the most important of my life—and provide the inspiration for We Hold These Truths.
When our campaign wrapped up in May (we lost in the primary race), and after a well-earned summer vacation, I moved to New York and joined the law firm of Cravath, Swaine & Moore LLP. I spent three years at Cravath representing investment banks like Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan, and Credit Suisse in securities and banking transactions involving insanely complicated credit facilities (I’m not bragging here, but rather explaining why I have so little pigmentation left in my hair).
Longing to be closer to family, I returned to D.C. in September 2013 and joined the securities law practice at Dechert LLP. One year later, I left Dechert to pursue my passion for writing—specifically, to finish We Hold These Truths.
Who in your life encouraged you to write?
Interesting question. There was no specific person who encouraged me to write, but my DYNAMIC second grade teacher, Mrs. Wright, would frequently remind me—yes, at age 8—that I had a voice, and that as a consequence, I had a responsibility to use my voice to help others. I made a pledge to her, renewed frequently over the years, to find a way to use my voice to help those whose needs don’t always make it to the bargaining table. We Hold These Truths is my way of not only speaking truth to power on behalf of those who aren’t always heard, but also—and I argue more importantly—I’m explaining to America’s most marginalized citizens how they can use their collective voice and vision to dictate political outcomes that will inure to their long-term benefit. I hope Mrs. Wright is proud of me. I can still hear her voice. What a woman—which leads me to an important lesson I’ve learned in my 34 years on this earth: Women are doers. Men are fond of rhetoric and speechmaking, but very little gets done when there aren’t women in the room. Believe me.
What was the inspiration behind We Hold These Truths? Did you get the idea from a personal experience?
We Hold These Truths grew out of and was inspired by my work as a senior aide and deputy campaign manager on a US Senate campaign in North Carolina in 2010. Within our campaign, we thought of the 2010 election cycle as a critical opportunity to test what we called the “Obama Thesis”: the proposition that Barack Obama’s election had permanently changed the American sociopolitical landscape. In particular, we sought to test the extent to which Obama’s election changed the way people of all races (and in particular, whites) thought about black and brown candidates, and their viability. At the time, there was a sense among folks in certain progressive circles that if talented minority candidates campaigned hard, they could now win elected offices that had previously fallen within the exclusive purview of the their white, often male counterparts.
As it turns out, this was not the case. Post-racial, America was not. The explanation is complex, though I’ve attempted to state it plainly in the pages of We Hold These Truths. You’ll have to buy the book to learn how our campaign played out, but I will say this: I see We Hold These Truths as an articulation of the political missteps that led to the election of Donald J. Trump as America’s 45th president. And I’ll say this too. Despite popular opinion to the contrary, Trump’s success wasn’t just the consequence of racist dog whistling to working class white Americans. In my view, the Democratic Party’s failures over the last several decades, from the national level down to the state and local levels, did far more to land Trump at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Intrigued? Good. Now go buy the book!
How long did it take you to write We Hold These Truths and what kept you motivated along the way?
I started writing We Hold These Truths immediately after we lost the primary election on May 4, 2010. I finished the book—that is, before the professional editors got their hands on it—on October 3, 2015. You know, people often ask me what motivated me to keep going. I quit my job (and with it, my sizable six-figure salary) to finish this book, and I did it without hesitation. I guess I just had, and still have, an unflinching belief in the importance of the story I had to tell. I know there are people who need to hear this story, folks who need someone to articulate how we got into this political mess and also chart a way forward. That was and remains far more important to me than the number of zeros on my bank statement. Ultimately, I was motivated by the belief that we are still capable of forging a politics that reflects the best of our character as Americans, and which gives voice to the needs of everyone; a belief that America could finally guarantee the one thing our nation’s founding documents and ethos promise every singe American: an opportunity to succeed.
How do you think this generation and the next will be impacted by your words?
If you look back in our country’s history, young people have always been at the forefront of any major movement calling for a change to the status quo. They are the arbiters and auditors of change. Of course, I can’t predict what young people will do with my words. My hope is that We Hold These Truths will open up a new world for them, one where the possibilities for social, economic, and political progress are endless because they’ve learned how “the game” is played. I also hope this book instills a sense of fearlessness in the hearts and minds of all those who read it. We really can achieve anything—electing a black president was proof of how potent we are together when we set our minds to something. But we’ve got to stay committed to doing the work required to deliver change, and that’s hard work. Really hard work—work that in hindsight it seems we weren’t really prepared to carry out in the aftermath of Barack Obama’s 2008 election.
As I speak with younger millennials today, I hear an apathy in their voices; a sense that political involvement is futile because politicians aren’t listening to them. Many of them have come to the troubling conclusion that they ought not waste time engaging a system that doesn’t care about them. While I agree that our democratic system, and the corporate party apparatus that rules it, doesn’t give much thought to them outside of election season, I disagree with their response, because failing to engage the system guarantees precisely the outcome that’s ripping our democracy apart: a lack of accountability from our political parties and politicians. We’ve simply got to engage the process, recruit and elect progressive candidates, and then hold them accountable once they’re in office—in short, make them earn our votes. If we fail to do that, is it any surprise that so-called “progressive” candidates do nothing for us once they’re in office? Demand more, and get more.
What’s your favorite element of your book (a favorite chapter, a favorite character, etc.)?
While We Hold These Truths is, properly speaking, a piece of historical political fiction, the plot also develops around the protagonist’s struggle with transitioning out of adolescence and into manhood. This element was especially fun to weave into the tale. There’s no real way to separate the coming-of-age narrative from the larger political narrative. They are one. I think readers will chuckle, and sometimes cringe, as Al Carpenter navigates his way through the thorny politics of complex relationships—both professional and personal.
If you only had one sentence to capture a new reader what would you tell them about the book?
We Hold These Truths tells the tale of how America squandered a golden opportunity to deliver the change made possible by the hope of 2008, but it also explains—with what is at times heartbreaking candor—how we can ensure we never repeat this devastating mistake again.