On the night of the 2016 presidential election, my wife and I went out for dinner and drinks rather than sit in front of the television watching the state-by-state results before celebrating Hillary Clinton’s victory later that evening. So into Flint, we drove—a twenty-mile trip one way from our mostly white suburb of Fenton to the predominantly black city that is working hard to make a comeback from years of divestment and racial separation. We landed on that drizzling night at a cozy and dimly lit bar on the northern edge of downtown that we visited occasionally after work.
Tuesday was “Jazz Night” at the Soggy Bottom.
The place was packed with several familiar faces present among the mostly white clientele of Millennials, Gen Xers, and aging Baby boomers. The quintet’s hard bop selections were soulful, the mood spirited, and the Old Fashioned cocktails bracing.
At one point, I posted on Facebook a picture of the jazz ensemble playing on the tiny, cramped stage just off the front entrance with a big American flag draped in the background. The caption read: “Calling on Lady Day and John Coltrane on this election night.” It was my nod to the great Gil Scott Heron and his homage to two giants of American music and culture.
Of course, that buoyant mood would not last.
Hours later, during a slow drive home on rain-slickened streets, we listened in silence to the sobering commentary on NPR that poured out of the radio. Once home, we were absorbed by an endless loop of TV coverage showing, increasingly, that the expert pollsters had gotten it all wrong. Much like the two-term presidency of Barack Obama, our evening that began on an upbeat, if somewhat cautious, note had seemingly smashed against a persistent obstruction—one that is not always visible above the surface.
Alone in my kitchen in the wee hours of November 9 after Donald Trump had been elected president, I took to Facebook to call out: “I don’t know if I’m ashamed of my country or if my worst fears about it have been confirmed.”
“I’m sure it’s a little bit of both,” someone replied.
Over the next few days, I read and heard various reports about the revolt of “white working class” voters, who believed that Trump was the answer to their prayers. And I thought: What the fuck do they have to be so pissed off about?
This so-called anger wasn’t your garden-variety, election-year bitching. Stoked by eight years of birtherism and the more recent cries to “take back our country,” the cacophony was the sound of the colossal façade of colorblindness shattering all around us.
Yes. No one sees color—and by no one, I mean white people—that is until there are no more white people in the picture or, more precisely, dominating the picture in their minds. In the circles of academia and real estate professionals, it’s called the “tipping point.” Among us non-elites, it’s something more practical, like the threshold crossed when there are now too many brothas and sistas showing up at the club. That’s when the manager (or his or her designee) starts hassling black patrons, either at the door or by providing service without the smile. Or both. And when that fails, the music format is changed.
For some, the Obama years were emblematic of the moment when too many brothas and sistas started showing up at the club. So, a format change was due.
By the end of the week, I was still furious, but my brief fog had lifted. That Friday was Veterans Day.
As I had done in previous years, I had planned to post a photograph of my late father in his Army uniform. The picture I had picked out was the one of him and my mother standing on the campus of Hampton Institute (now Hampton University) in Virginia. It was taken not long before he shipped out to Italy with the rest of the 365th Infantry Regiment of the 92nd Division, the only all-black combat unit in Europe of the then-segregated U.S. Armed Forces. However, I could not bring myself to celebrate our commonalities. I wrote:
My father and his buddies were drafted to fight fascism, too. I’ll never forget him telling me how tearful he and his best friend, Skelly (Mr. Johnson to us, kids), were as their train pulled out of the Flint station, unsure whether they’d ever make it home again. I’ll never forget him telling me how fearful he felt advancing up an Italian mountainside under heavy German shelling. Or about being roughly 20 miles away at the time of Mussolini’s execution and the hanging of his desecrated corpse in the public square. Twenty miles—the approximate distance between Flint and Fenton.
Sharing my family’s history with friends via Facebook was my way, my attempt—however Pollyannaish—to celebrate and promote our unity as the United States. A unity that I really wanted to believe was taking hold in the immediate aftermath of Barack Obama’s first election as president. It was also my way to publicly honor my parents, both of whom I so dearly miss.
But that belief has eroded slowly, as I witnessed Obama’s treatment over the past eight years on a macro-level and dealt with issues on a micro-level in my own community.
We now live with the reality that our nation, in 2016, elected a racist and xenophobic man, among his other deplorable traits, to be its 45th president. Whether his victory was partly the result of a piss-poor campaign run by Clinton doesn’t absolve those who voted a man whose personal track record on race and ethnicity is piss-poor as well.
I know, right? I, too, can hear the howls: Racism? Who said anything about racism?
It is always anything but that.
Well, Trump’s racial animus certainly played favorably in the venerated American heartland. It was his drawing card, as Thomas Wood, assistant professor of political science at Ohio State University, found in his analysis of the influential 2016 American National Election Study of the presidential campaign.
“Racial attitudes made a bigger difference in electing Trump than authoritarianism,” said Wood, in a Washington Post op-ed.
Wood is not an outlier in his expert analysis of the racial underpinnings of Trump’s appeal; others have weighed in with similar findings. Still, it’s easy to dismiss that which was obvious to many of us non-experts.
That’s because on matters of race, we live in an age of plausible deniability. Separate drinking fountains, colored-only beaches, a segregated military, racially restrictive covenants, bans on interracial marriage—they are all relics of history, however painful.
Even the famous travel guide for black motorists—the so-called Green Book—ceased publication a half-century ago. For thirty years beginning in 1936, The Negro Motorist Green Book was the go-to directory of welcoming establishments for black travelers when racial segregation was legal and rigidly enforced.
Oh, yeah. The Green Book was a thing. My parents kept a copy handy for their many road trips to destinations in the South and beyond in the aftermath of World War II, including a journey to the southernmost point of the continental U.S. in December 1956.
Their fondness for the open road never abated. It continued well into the 1960s and ’70s, by when they had finished amassing their clan of six children. They would continue to hit the road after their children had all grown up and set off on their own.
The road trips in the Chevrolet station wagon that I remember as a child were a model of logistical know-how. There was the luggage, a cooler of food (sandwiches mostly or fried chicken and fruit), a gallon jug of water (no cups necessary—just pass the jug), a couple of retired baby-crib mattresses placed in the tailgate section for us kids to stretch out, some simple games to pass the time, and an empty coffee can for the little ones to relief themselves between refueling stops. When Daddy did pull off the highway for a fill-up, it was like a NASCAR racer making a pit stop. No lollygagging. In and out, and back on the road toward our ultimate destination. Unless, of course, he needed to check his map, in which case he would unfold it and spread it across the hood of the car like a general studying the battlefield, plotting a way to outflank the enemy.
I imagine their big road trip in ’56 was similarly well-planned and executed, with a few key differences. Then, they had only three children—“the original three,” as my second-oldest sister liked to say. Interstates, or expressways, did not exist; road travel was a seemingly more intimate experience with the cities, little towns, and countryside that one passed through. Also, their choices of stops for food, lodging and other conveniences were limited by legally protected racism. For the thirty-five-year-old former Army staff sergeant preparing to travel through the Jim Crow south with his thirty-one-year-old wife, and their three children, ages nine, seven, and four, his flanking maneuvers involved the use of the “Negro” field manual—The Green Book.
Starting out in Flint, Michigan, they drove south on old U.S. 10 to U.S. 23 on a holiday excursion with “the original three” for their American adventure. Along the way, the family picked up U.S. 60 heading east toward Richmond, Virginia—the capital of that would-be nation that vowed to preserve the institution of “negro slavery, as it now exists” by enshrining it in its constitution. There, they spent the night at an inn that Daddy had found in The Green Book. It wasn’t anything fancy, I’m told. Something that might have resembled a motel or large bed-and-breakfast for black folk. (Other times, they simply pulled off the road and slept in the Buick after a long day of driving.)
Following U.S. 1 south out of Virginia, they made it to Delray Beach, Florida, whereafter they stayed with family. My father’s Aunt Pearline and Aunt Susie both lived there. While there, the folks would take Gail, Chuck, and Madeline to see the vast Atlantic Ocean that stretched as far as their little eyes could see and whose waters tasted salty. But before heading out, I’m certain that my great aunts in Delray Beach, being good (and strict) hosts, made sure the folks found their way safely to the colored-only beach. Family vacations with young children can be stressful enough, without the brackish aftertaste of humiliation.
Remembering the visit to the segregated beach, it wasn’t quite the rollicking, fun-in-the-sun, carefree atmosphere with people tossing beach balls, spiking volleyballs, or tanning. “It was absolutely deserted,” said Chuck. “It was during the week, so I guess people were at work.”
A day or so later, it was on to Key West. Once there, they drove aboard an automobile-carrying ferry bound for Havana. The ride over was smooth, and they docked in the morning. After disembarking and passing through customs, they found that their Cuban experience—which began on the boat—wouldn’t include any racial restrictions. Even though it was a little tense, mama said, seeing all the Cuban soldiers with “Tommy guns” guarding the government buildings while Fidel Castro waged a guerilla war in the mountains, that leg of the trip didn’t require a Green Book to get around. Daddy did, however, spring for a guide to chauffeur them around Havana. His name was Pedro.
“We were treated as very adorable American kids. They were really, really nice to us,” said Chuck, who was just seven years old at the time. “We stayed in a hotel. We went to restaurants and tourist spots without restriction.”
The folks very much enjoyed their two-day jaunt abroad—a trip immortalized by a colorful photograph Daddy had snapped of his young, attractive family strolling along the Malecón waterfront. Across the harbor in the distance, you see the sixteenth century Castillo San Salvador de la Punta standing guard over mama’s left shoulder. And there was neither a “whites only” nor “colored only” sign anywhere to be found.
On the return trip back across the Straits of Florida, Chuck said, almost everyone puked. It was the rough sea. Or, perhaps the sickness was caused by the unsettling thought of returning to America the Great as second-class citizens.
The Green Book was retired in 1967. The family of Victor Hugo Green, the guide’s founder, believed sincerely that the annual publication had served its purpose since legal discrimination in accommodations had been finally outlawed. Mission accomplished. Or was it?
Recalling the nostalgia of the family road trips of my youth, I’m sure that some of those weird and idiosyncratic travel arrangements of my parents were holdovers from that goddamned Jim Crow era. Moreover, what had been legal and aboveground remained covert, in polite company, and otherwise institutionalized in too many ways and too many places.
Today, of course, unabashed racism is rampant within the various corridors of social media, where the racists hide behind an assortment of screen names and menacing avatars while blending into general populace like so many ISIS operatives lying in wait. Outside that realm, the cowards remain quiet and work to keep their impulses in check. Well, that is until their impulse control fails them, and their noxious behavior is legitimized by the powerful and influential, courtesy of various encoded messaging.
With this president comes a greater worry that the racism that has lurked in the shadows will come out of hiding, having been emboldened by a thinly veiled white nationalist campaign. It already has. Once out in the open, the fear is real that the White House, backed by a subservient GOP-majority Congress—having renewed its Faustian pact with a new generation of “race hustlers” (to borrow their lingo)—will give bigotry plenty of aid and comfort.
I do find some solace knowing that millions more Americans voted against that campaign than for it and in watching his approval ratings plummet. But that alone is not enough. He is still president. He has followers. And he can wreak havoc on the body politic.
So, where do we go from here?
Less than a mile south of the Soggy Bottom, tucked inside a modest one-story, red-brick office building, sits the MW Gallery where an art exhibit—“Where Do We Go From Here?,” which ran from January to July 2017—explored that very question.
Home to the Mott-Warsh Collection, a private collection of fine art created by artists of the African diaspora, the gallery’s current exhibit was “inspired by recent political events in the United States,” according to a review in East Village Magazine. Maryanne Mott, the daughter of Charles and Ruth Mott and the gallery’s namesake, told East Village that the exhibit “has many sources of inspiration but certainly the current political climate was a strong factor. We hope that it will prompt curiosity, reflection and discussion.”
MW Gallery director and curator Stephanie James, in the same article, added: “[W]e, as a society, are going through a difficult time right now in trying to understand one another, hear one another out. […] [The exhibit is] an opportunity to reflect on some of these issues through the artists’ reflections.”
I toured the exhibit for myself—my first visit to the gallery since it opened the summer of 2016. I spoke briefly with Ms. James who had come out to greet this lonely visitor who arrived less than an hour before closing for the evening. She was gracious and welcoming before setting me free to explore a sampling of the vast Mott-Warsh Collection.
There were individual pieces in the exhibit that moved me deeply. None more so than a grainy black-and-white photograph of a teenage boy in a neck shackle with a thick chain attached. He wore a mild expression of disbelief, as though he were trapped inside of a nightmare. In his expansive, penetrating eyes and narrow face, I saw my teenage son. I thought about the lyrics of Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five’s groundbreaking rap, “The Message.” Facing that boy there all alone in the gallery, one passage in particular sprang to mind:
A child is born with no state of mind
Blind to the ways of mankind
God is smiling on you, but he’s frowning too
Because only God knows what you’ll go through
You’ll grow in the ghetto living second-rate
And your eyes will sing a song called deep hate
I could have wept. But aside from the slide into personal reverie, what I felt most strongly was kinship and a connection spanning generations.
In hindsight, the decision to call on Lady Day and John Coltrane on a misty election night while holed up at the Soggy Bottom made far more sense than I knew at the time. Far from being simply a relaxing diversion before settling in for the evening’s main event, the music, with its timeless rhythms and melodies, served notice. It was a powerful reminder—in the vernacular of the younger brothers and sisters out there today—to stay woke.
New York Times music critic Jon Pareles, in a 1999 article “Don’t Call Jazz America’s Classical Music,” wrote how jazz “lives in an eternal present tense.”
“One of jazz’s all-American advantages is that, like important popular idioms around the world, it rose up from under: out of bordellos and speak-easies, dance halls and rent parties came genius after genius. Jazz legends weren’t commissioned by churches or counts; they had more colorful patrons. And in upstart America, an outlaw heritage confers a touch of glamour that jazz should use.”
I am moved by the genius of our forebears—the many ways they demonstrated how lives matter and the communities that nourished them. But we are not, to quote Pareles’s article, classical musicians “resuscitating scores from the distant or near past,” as we make sense of and respond to our present-day world.
Where do we go from here? In the face of this contemporary threat to our humanity, we must—like our great jazz musicians and other artists—stay vigilant, unapologetic, and ever present.
That means no polite accommodation. No retreat. And never, ever forget. America’s future depends on it.
© Bob Campbell
[This piece was selected by John Haggerty. Read Bob’s interview]