You learn a lot about America on its country roads.
My education came under the tutelage of my father, a man who taught me his love for driving through the South. There’s a beauty in the neat tobacco rows on Highway 64 and the tall, quiet sentinel trees on 87. With mouths full of sunflower seeds, my daddy would quiz me on each plant, animal, and landmark we passed, and I picked up both his habits of driving and cataloguing the things that made us Southern, black, and whole.
But things ain’t always beautiful, and I learned those too. One hot summer afternoon, taking the 74 east from Charlotte, North Carolina, to Elizabethtown in my daddy’s black Toyota truck, a man ran us off the road. We skidded on the dirt shoulder as the man sped on past, his Confederate battle flag license plate a final insult to our situation. The bile rose in my throat, and the hot anger and shame at the symbol made my skin prickle. Here was a man who could just be a jerk having a bad day, but whose choice of a single symbol suddenly made that bad day personal. My dad just cussed a little bit, put another handful of sunflower seeds in his mouth, and continued on our way down that road.
At a gas station just outside of Rockingham, serendipity found us. As we pulled up to the pump, just there in front of our car was Mr. Confederate Plate, leaning like all villains do against the side of his car. I’m not sure who recognized whom first, but I remember the shouting match, and Mr. Confederate Flag calling my father the one name he would never answer to, looking at me and saying the same, and then pantomiming that he had a gun in the car. I remember looking around at similar flags on another truck and inside the gas station, and knowing instinctively that we were not in friendly territory. I also remember my father shaking with rage and that same hot shame as my own when he climbed back in the truck.
After another cussing fit, Vann Newkirk Sr. looked at me and said the thing that’s always stuck with me since. “This is who we are,” he told me. “Don’t forget.” And we went back down the road.
This is who we are. Those words often come to me when I see the ugly things in life now. When the first details about Tamir Rice’s death at the hands of police officers came to me on Twitter, they were a scream in the dark. When people questioned with straight faces if our president was even born in America, they echoed about my ears. When the Department of Justice report revealed that Ferguson, Missouri, was a racial kleptocracy, they were a whisper in the wind.
When a man who was accused of multiple sexual assaults, was endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan, had characterized Mexican immigrants as “rapists,” and has promoted stop and frisk as a national campaign of “law and order” was elected president, they boomed like thunder.
Donald J. Trump won going away. The election was not all that close on election night, truth be told, and if our models and forecasts had been more frank, they would have told us to hang it up by 10:00 p.m. ET. The Republican nominee won the Rust Belt and the Sun Belt, cutting wide swaths across the American electorate and even encroaching on the vaunted Clinton firewalls. He won Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Michigan, Florida, and Wisconsin, and he did it in defiance of every prediction.
Reince Priebus’s 2012 postmortem be damned, Donald Trump won the thing by appealing to white voters, and running an unabashed campaign of bigotry, racism, xenophobia, and other odds and ends of nastiness. This wasn’t some short-lived populist revolt destined to fizzle out in the summer or disorganized anti-establishment rabble, nor was it a catastrophic rending of the Grand Old Party. It wasn’t soul-searching. This was a juggernaut. It was a repudiation by the American electorate of the grand experiment of diversity of the past few years, as symbolized by Barack Obama. It was the half of America, a half that if not bigoted itself seemed mighty fine with being bigotry-adjacent. This is who we are.
As my colleagues and friends Jamelle Bouie, Adam Serwer, and Jenée Desmond-Harris note in three great columns, this election is a hard reminder that racism is a force that has always shaped this country. This is the same country that killed Emmett Till, and the same place that gave us Jim Crow. My reporting over the past few months has shown me that Jim Crow and the legacy of slavery are not just echoed in present-day events, but directly animate them. As Reconstruction was replaced with Redemption, so a post-racial America is replaced with whatever comes next. The rubber band always snaps back, so it seems. It’s no coincidence that this is the first presidential election since the mighty Voting Rights Act—the crown jewel of the black struggle for humanity in America—was diminished by Shelby County v. Holder. It’s also no coincidence that the specter of black voter suppression returned to the polls in the South on Election Day.
This is also the first election of my life where my own vote and opinions so directly affect the lives of other people. My wife and I are expecting a child sometime in April, and I’m left thinking about how whatever just happened will affect his life. By Trump’s own promises, our son might be subject to the world-eating black box of stop-and frisk for no reason. The carceral state that threatened my well-being might also consume him. He might see his own rights of expression that I use to defend him rolled back. Perhaps the most frightening idea for me is not the fanciful visions of mass violence that many have conjured, but the anxiety that I might fail to provide something better to my children than what I had the misfortune to experience. Am I providing opportunity, or just passing on a curse? I wrestle with the idea that I have failed to defend my son even before he takes his first breath.
One day I’m going to look that boy in the eye and have to explain the same thing my father did to me, and his grandfather to him. This is who we are. I know now that the wisdom of black fatherhood comes with a burden of sorrow.
But what I also know is that America is a multiplicity of wes, of collective nouns and spaces of all sorts. When I remember my tears for Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown, I also remember the young black protesters who traveled thousands of miles in buses and cramped cars to protest in clouds of tear gas and force the country to confront its history of brutality of black bodies. When I hear about voter suppression, I also think back to the dozens of activists who worked tirelessly to restore voting rights. When I recall the birther movement, I also recall Michelle Obama’s speech at the Democratic National Convention, delivered in a sea of waving signs. I still feel the infectious energy after the crowd heard her now-famous phrase “when they go low, we go high,” and the radiance from black girls and grandmothers alike at collecting her signs hours after she’d left the building.
When I worry about whether diversity and relations between races can ever be sustained, I think about my job here. I think about my editor, Yoni Appelbaum, and my colleague and mentor Ta-Nehisi Coates. I think about this diverse and diversifying newsroom of races, genders, sexual orientations, backgrounds, and views, and a media landscape that has seen multiple renaissances of thought and work from people of color. I think about the fact that the popular vote of this election belongs to one of the most diverse coalitions of voters in American history, and that regardless of party or creed, the most vulnerable people among us now form some of the most powerful voting blocs in the country. That’s not nothing.
It’s fair to wonder if the forces and fighters arrayed against bigotry will ever share in a total victory. Perhaps the well is just too deep, and America will always return to what it has been, regardless of how far it is stretched and progressed. It’s fair to wonder if the Trump coalition’s Great America will involve returning to some time or era to which not all of us can safely return. Of those matters I am agnostic; history and hope are often at odds.
But on the whole, it’s also fair to keep building and keep dreaming, and to imagine or try to create a country where the common thread of empathy is the tie that binds. While the election Tuesday seemed an endorsement of everything divisive about America today, with a squint it also becomes a look at the right things: the activists and activated people, the young people thinking of new ways to make democracy work, and the coalitions of people building an America whose greatness will not be measured in which people are walled out of prosperity, but how many people are allowed in. There is still some glimmer of a chance that with enough work and elbow grease, my child—descended from slaves, slave masters, immigrants, and natives—will find a way to live outside of the veil. This is why I write.
You learn a lot about America on its country roads, and I learned most of what I needed to know riding shotgun, drinking Cheerwines, and spitting sunflower seeds on trips with my father. But I hope that when I pass down his words, they have meaning in both senses. This is who we are. It occurs to me now that his phrase was both a warning and salvation.
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