Reprise / Reprisal

Featured photograph by me. Sorry.

Nearly one month ago, my family, like so many others, arranged itself around the TV in much the same way participants in a séance surround a crystal ball: desperately squinting, craning, praying for a glimpse of the unknowable, a message from the beyond. Scott Pelley, Rachel Maddow, Judy Woodruff, soothsayers of our time, tell us what you have seen of the future.

Wearing a giddy grin and a T-shirt bearing Obama’s sunrise O logo, I’d buzzed around our polling station in Queens, rushing my parents, applauding the casting of my younger brother’s first ballot, drawing wary glances from graying white men in dirty jeans with tools hanging from their belt loops. I cracked open a celebratory beer the moment we returned home, congratulating myself on making history again – my first vote had helped re-elect the first black president, and my second would undoubtedly pave the first woman’s way to the Oval Office.

My mother was equally confident, but of the opposite conclusion. As the first poll results of the night were called, immediately placing Trump ahead of Clinton, my mother sighed.

“Wow,” she said, her tone betraying more weariness than surprise. “President Trump.”

The rest of us laughed, teasing her for ascribing any importance to the decisions of remote, reliably red states like Kentucky and Indiana. Just wait, we told her. Wait for New York and California. Wait for Pennsylvania, Florida, North Carolina. She went to bed well before midnight. I never slept.

The next morning, my call went straight to voicemail.

“You were right. Call me back.”

When she did, she answered my hysteria with nonchalance. She explained how rare it is for one party to hold the White House for three consecutive terms, and optimistically pointed out that her taxes usually go down under Republican administrations. I, who had known nothing but electoral victory before this catastrophe, was inconsolable. How could she not see the sky falling down around her?

That night, as my mother reclined at home, I marched through the rain to Trump Tower, one soldier in an army of disillusioned youth. Ignoring warnings blared through police loudspeakers, we charged through traffic, chanting “not my president,” “love trumps hate,” “fuck Donald Trump.” Facing a barrier of fences, dump trucks, and smirking police officers, waving shredded, inverted American flags, signs shouting aggressive slogans like “pussy grabs back,” and one lifelike Trump piñata, we embodied the disappointment, rage, and determination of a generation that had expected the march of progress to go on unimpeded for the rest of our lives and had no intentions of laying that dream to rest.

But the dreams of black and brown Americans have a habit of morphing into nightmares, and the march of progress has always been impeded by barricades, water cannons, and police batons. The election of Donald Trump is not a departure from history; it is a return to form, the chorus of a quintessentially American song. Chicago replaced its first black mayors, Harold Washington and Eugene Sawyer, with Richard Daley, who campaigned by reminding white voters that they needed “a white mayor to sit down with everybody.” David Dinkins, the only black man who has ever served as mayor of New York City, was succeeded by Rudy Giuliani, who fulfilled his campaign promise to crack down on petty crime by putting Bill Bratton, champion of the broken windows theory, in charge of the NYPD.

Now Giuliani, whose greatest foreign policy achievement was getting Palestinian president Yasir Arafat kicked out of a New York Philharmonic concert, is on Trump’s short list of contenders for secretary of state. The next president has already selected Steve Bannon, former executive chair of racist propaganda outlet Breitbart News, and Jeff Sessions, who once called the NAACP “un-American” for “trying to force civil rights down the throats of people,” for high-level cabinet posts.

The organization Sessions maligned was founded in the post-Reconstruction era, when white supremacists smothered nascent black political participation with a campaign of quasi-legal disenfranchisement and extralegal violence. Once again, the voting rights of black Americans are under siege. Republicans who have spent the last three and a half years steadily chipping away at these rights cannot have been any more surprised by the result of this election, the first in 50 years without the safeguard of an unimpaired Voting Rights Act, than my mother was. White terrorism, too, is in the midst of a resurgence: in the week after the election, the Southern Poverty Law Center documented over 300 incidents of aggression, intimidation, and hatred directed at women, Muslims, immigrants, and people of color.

I doubt we can expect Democrats to provide the protection our rights and lives require during this latest backlash. The two major parties are probably about to start competing for white working class votes like kids fighting over the last slice of cake at a birthday party. The burden of resistance will fall as squarely as it always has on the shoulders of those most likely to feel that a lifetime of relentless oppression has left them too weak to carry it. Do not crumble. Let the hot outrage, misery, and fear of these past few weeks cool and harden into unbreakable resolve. Remember that the hideous history of racism is matched by a tradition of dignified dissent. Hymns of freedom have always been sung in glorious counterpoint to the ghastly strains of tyranny. Raise your voice.

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