The first time someone called me a nigger, I was playing with a friend on my front lawn. My friend had brought over his new carrying case for “Star Wars” action figures. It was dark plastic, in the shape of Darth Vader’s head. Inside the case were rows and rows of action figures. We were both about 13, and while we were probably a little too old to be playing with toys, it didn’t matter. Every week, I looked forward to the galactic war we’d wage in front of my house. On this day, in the middle of one of our battles, a car drove by with several older white teenagers. The driver leaned out of the window and screamed, “Go back to Africa, nigger.” At 13, I’d heard the word before. I knew white people used it like a knife, but the knife had never been wielded against me. I remember my friend, who was white, looked at me with a question in his eyes. I didn’t know how to respond, and, besides, the car was long gone, so I picked up my little action figure and continued to play.
In the neighborhood where I lived in Orange Park, Florida, we were one of two black families. The pervasive feeling that I had, from the time we moved there until my parents moved out, was to keep my head down. Make as little noise as possible. The white people around me didn’t have such restrictions – they could talk, glare and act pretty much any way they wanted. Who would stop them? No one stopped their random word bombs from speeding cars, no one stopped them when they painted “No Fat Chicks or Niggers” on the street in front of my house, and no one stopped them when more than 20 young white men surrounded my home, called us names and spit on my mother. Keep your head down and survive. This all happened in the mid-’80s, and what I didn’t understand then is, like many African Americans living in the South in the post-civil rights era, I was living in a snow globe, so to speak: a place trapped in time, where the civil rights struggle had happened but not everyone had gotten the message.
I’ve been thinking about those experiences a lot as I’ve watched Donald Trump rise in the polls. Like a lot of people, I read and heard the comments he’d made about Muslims, Mexicans and others. There are many historical references for political figures who speak to the lowest common denominator in us. Trump’s proclamations are far from new or original, but they’ve clearly connected with a lot of people. I really wanted to understand how and why. And so my show, Reveal, set out not to understand and hear Trump, but to talk to his supporters – the people behind his rise. We went all over the country, from casinos to dance halls, into people’s homes, on the backs of motorcycles – anywhere we could find them. We didn’t just want to get the sound bite; we wanted to get to the heart of the matter.
What we found were people who were disenchanted with the status quo, who felt like no one had heard their voices about the things they held dear: a way of life, traditional values being lost, and a deep desire for the death of political correctness. No matter what their main issue – the economy, immigration, family values – every person we met mentioned that political correctness was killing this country and that they were tired of not being able to say what they felt. Every time I heard this line of reasoning, I thought not only about my personal history, but the history of this country.
The “snow globe” I grew up in was a leftover from a time not so long ago, when being politically correct wasn’t an issue for white people. They could say, do and behave any way they wanted toward people whom they did not consider worthy of consideration. We can see what that country looked like, in black-and-white pictures, documentaries and in the recollections of those who lived it. No one worried about political correctness when blacks, women and others stayed in their place. It was only when people refused to be held down anymore that we as a nation demanded decency to others. But those wars, both literal and metaphysical, for human decency and dignity never end. The seeds of discontent will always lie in the human heart.
The Trump supporters I spoke to welcomed me with open arms and pleasant smiles, and they were genuine. But at the same time, they endorsed Trump’s intolerance and radical vision of America. When they say they want to “Take America back,” I think back to that 13-year-old boy, who stopped playing in his front yard for fear of random, angry white people; the young man who didn’t trust his neighbors because they just watched and said nothing as we were harassed; the community that never really felt like home because some people didn’t care enough about us to just be civil. I don’t want my children to grow up in a country like that, where they are forced to keep their heads down and survive. Trump’s slogan, “Make America Great Again,” may feel like solid ground to his supporters, a place to plant the flag and say no more; a nostalgic look back on an idealized America. But that vision wasn’t ideal for everyone, and when I hear those calls to “Take America back,” what I really hear is: Get to the back of the bus.
Al Letson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @Al_Letson.