How Trump’s Presidency Changed Me as a Black Woman

CNN — Perhaps more than any other President in US history, with the exception of Abraham Lincoln, Donald Trump’s presidency so far has been dominated by open expressions of racial division.

President Donald Trump has exposed the nation’s open, festering, racial wounds — whether by defending white supremacists and nationalists as “very fine people” after Charlottesville or denouncing NFL players who kneel during the playing of the National Anthem as “sons of bitches.”
We used to laugh at characters like Archie Bunker. Now we have one with an active Twitter account and access to nuclear launch codes. The danger of Donald Trump and his administration is not just his saber rattling or even the systematic erosion of President Barack Obama’s policies. It is also the intentional denial of historic facts, the appropriation of national symbols for political aims, and the consistent discrediting of black women who oppose him.
Even as an African-American woman who chose to live abroad months before last year’s election, I have been profoundly affected by his presidency. Here’s what I’ve taken away from a year of the Trump administration.
I am perpetually gaslit. Donald Trump’s chief of staff, John Kelly, the one who moderates said would bring sanity to the White House, mythologized Robert E. Lee as an “honorable man who gave up his country to fight for his state.” Gaslighting isn’t just practiced by white members of Trump’s administration. Ben Carson, a black man and the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, said slaves were immigrants. On the bright side, Frederick Douglass — who died in 1895 — is “doing an amazing job” and “getting recognized more and more,” we learned from the President. Under such factual and logical assaults, one begins to feel like unwilling participant in a disappearing act.
Symbols matter. I lived in North Carolina for nearly 20 years, so I’m accustomed to white, southern gentlemen of a certain age (sometimes in seersucker suits) correcting anyone who would listen to assert that that the Civil War was actually “the War of Northern Aggression.” But it’s less quirky when white men are brandishing Tiki torches and threatening violence to preserve statues of men who kidnapped, raped, and enslaved my ancestors. If the losers get to rewrite history, who determines the future?
I have revisited my definition of patriotism. Reductive arguments that “taking a knee” during the National Anthem disrespects the military and the flag assume a “whites only” experience of America. I imagine that it’s hard for Donald Trump and some of his supporters on this argument to imagine the reality of a man like my father, who enlisted in the US Marines during the Vietnam War. He was the only son of parents born in South Carolina, who were only a generation or two from slavery. His example shows that sometimes patriotism means fighting to preserve democratic ideals abroad, even if you don’t get to fully experience them at home. For many of us, however, patriotism can also mean loving a country so much, you insist it can do better.
I have buried respectability politics for good. For decades, I believed that if I spoke, dressed, and behaved in ways that didn’t scare white people, I would avoid their anger or judgment. A white congressman can yell “you lie” during a State of the Union speech made by the nation’s first black President, but a grieving military widow who says the President couldn’t even remember her slain husband’s name during a condolence call is discredited and dismissed. There are some things worth being an angry black woman about. I now embrace that label.
I remain stubbornly hopeful. Decisive Democratic victories in Virginia, New Jersey, and other parts of the country came as a clapback to the politics and personality of President Trump.
Virginia Democrats swept races for governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, and the state legislature. Danica Roem, the state’s first openly transgender candidate, defeated Bob Marshall, a longtime Republican incumbent who was the architect of Virginia’s bathroom bill. A civil rights lawyer who defended Black Lives Matter demonstrators in court is now Philadelphia’s next district attorney.
Closer to home, in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s election, I co-founded a race conversations project with A.J. Hartley, a white, male novelist and Shakespeare professor. In a multimedia project, we attempted to model how to have respectful conversations about race, including staying at the table when feeling attacked or hurt.
These heartbreaking conversations that also resulted in an enduring friendship, coupled with the outcome of Tuesday’s elections, changed me — because it no longer matters to me who is in the White House. The character of the country is more than the man who occupies the Oval Office. It’s all of us, together, we the people.
The following is reprinted from my op-ed this week on CNN.com