How We’ll Get Over: Going to the Upper Room With Donald J. Trump
White America may be meeting Donald Trump for the first time, but Black people have known him for centuries
“Wade in the water, wade in the water, Children. God’s gonna trouble the water.” — Traditional
“My soul looks back and wonders, how I got over.” — Mahalia Jackson
Months ago, I turned on the TV and saw a white mom at a protest in Portland dragged across the pavement and abused by the cops who surrounded her, her white flesh handled with no more care than Black flesh is usually afforded in this country. For a moment, my mind flinched from a lifetime of conditioning. I thought, “You can’t do that to a middle-class white woman!” But under a Trump presidency, you can. Niggerland has come to mainstream America.
I would venture that more white people in America feel powerless about their government right now than at any other time in history. And with so many dead, with protesters being arrested in the streets for civil disobedience, with the possibility that every office that is meant to protect Americans is being turned against us, we may all understand that Niggerland is no longer a place you drive by or watch on the news. It is in your own backyard; it is what is now happening to your civil rights.
Hello, my white friends; welcome to Niggerland. It’s a strange paradox; you’ve lived here all your life, yet you’ve never been here before.
This Southern dirt is alive and made of clay; it’s red and crumbles to pieces in your hands. Soil nourished by the blood of lynchings and a mother’s menstrual blood. She keeps working in the fields, avoiding overseer Smith’s lash, even though she needs a break. As the fluid of life runs down her legs, staining her white dress, she keeps working. She wants to rest, if only for a little while, but there is cotton to be picked. And profit to be made.
She keeps working she keeps working she keeps working she keeps working she
Her great-great-great-granddaughter stands in a meatpacking plant in Colorado. It’s 200 years later, it’s 10 minutes later, it’s 200 Covid-19 deaths later; the plant’s been fined for these deaths, yet it is a factory for death. She’s 65 years old, but she still has to work. Bills must be paid. And there are profits to be made.
She feels sick, she’s been coughing, she cuts the meat on the processing line with an electric knife, they keep talking about that Covid on the TV, she doesn’t feel well, she wants to rest, if only for a little while, but her boss Mr. Smith told her to keep working, meat is considered “essential” (although she is not). The blood of the animals she cuts, the fluid of life, runs down her legs and stains her white smock, but she can’t sit down. The line is already down three people and her shift doesn’t end for another two hours. There’s meat to be sold and profit to be made.
She keeps working she keeps working she keeps working she keeps working she
They call her daughter, an emergency contact in a file, in an office full of files, in a room full of offices. Do you have a mother, is her name, I’m sorry to inform you, I’m very sorry to report, your mother, I’m sorry, just one moment, wrong file, I’ve had to make these calls all morning, I’m so sorry, could you hold, please? Thank you for holding. Where was I? Oh yes, your mother, please remind me again. What was her name?
In Niggerland, no one can be saved when there’s cotton to pick and profit to be made.
She keeps working she keeps working she keeps working she keeps working she
I am a New Yorker who lived through 9/11.
I remember walking past the gates of churches down by Wall Street weeks after that tragic day — the posters of missing people turned lower Manhattan into a gallery of grief. So many faces. The Latina woman sitting next to her young daughter; the Italian maintenance man smiling his warmth; the elderly Black woman, an administrative assistant, adorned in a church outfit. It is an unfortunate truth: Sometimes it takes a tragedy to remind us we really are one tribe.
On Monday, September 10, this white man is an executive, a multimillionaire with a boat and a beautiful house in the Hamptons; this white woman makes the coffee and turns on the fax machine in the morning — she wears tennis shoes before everyone arrives (no one can see them then and her feet often hurt). This Asian executive asks if the conference room is available for a very important meeting, she hopes to increase her profit margin; this Black man is a cook at the top of the tower, he peels potatoes in the kitchen at Windows on the World; a Latina woman, a grandmother, cleans the offices at night. The security guard in the lobby is straight and a Republican; the Croatian woman who waters the plants is an immigrant.
I look at their faces on the posters and the faces that pass me on the street. In some bizarre lottery that only God understands, we’re here and they’re not. On 9/10, words like multimillionaire, Hamptons, conference room, white, fax machine, boat, Republican, Black, Immigrant, straight, profit margin mattered. On 9/11, not so much.
The kinds of words that divide people and create social distinctions any other day of the week were tossed into the air on 9/11 like so much useless confetti. When I walk by the posters, the faces are linked not by race or gender or sexual orientation or party affiliations… just grief.
Sometimes it takes a tragedy to remind us we really are one tribe.
I take off my cooking smock; you loosen your tie to breathe. You’re in an Armani suit with shoes from Brooks Brothers; I bought this shirt at T.J.Maxx. We sit on the floor beside each other.
You see me every day; I say good morning. You are on your phone, always on the phone. I say, “Anything else, sir?” and you say, “No, thank you, Jimmy,” because my name tag says Jimmy, like the coffee says Colombian, Ethiopian, Guatemalan, decaf. I don’t take it personally, but you consider me the way you’d consider a spoon, or a plate, or a newspaper. Newspapers don’t object when you throw them away. A spoon doesn’t dream when you put it in water to be washed. Nobody wastes their imagination on disposable things. You say thank you every day, but I know I exist for you only when you see me.
The air is acrid as we sit side by side. We could be anywhere in the world; we could be on a bench in a park on a lovely day. You turn to me and say, “Hey, Jimmy, you got kids?”
And I say, “Yes, sir, I got two kids. A boy and a girl. Both grown now. My granddaughter just started junior high school. She’s says she’s going to be a dentist.”
“I’ve got a daughter, two sons. My daughter’s grounded right now, can you believe it? For staying out too late this weekend with her friends. She’s 15 and thinks she rules the world. I wasn’t going to do it, but my wife insisted. This is the second weekend in a row. We had to do something, right? I’m too easy on her, my wife says. I’m tougher on the boys. But that’s how my father was with me.”
“Yeah, I was a little like that myself with mine. I know I spoil my granddaughter.”
For a week of work, I earn what you make in 15 minutes on the trading floor. Sometimes you go to the gym for two hours at lunch. I can’t sit down until the boss says I can take a break. It took 9/11 for you to ask me if I have kids.
You say, with a laugh, “Hey, Chief, I’ll be honest. I’m getting a little scared here.”
“Yeah, me too.” Thirty minutes later, we take the other’s hand and we pray together. And in that moment, the only moment that matters, we become brothers.
It’s been said: When you are drowning and someone comes to save you, you don’t ask, “Before we swim to shore, are you a Republican or a Democrat?”
We are drowning in Niggerland. You and I are swimming in the same sea. You may steer the ship while I lie inside the hull as cargo, but we are both traveling this ocean. The waters are troubled. Everything is at stake. We will survive together in November or America will perish.
Good news for white people who are feeling a little lost right now: There is a map, a blueprint for where we are and how to find our way out.
You may be meeting Donald Trump for the first time, but Black people have known him for centuries. He’s told us in a court of law that only three out of five of us count as human beings; he’s measured our heads to decide if we were human; he’s stood in the doorway of schools, blocking the entrance because colored children shouldn’t learn math with white children; he’s poured hot coffee over our heads because we asked to sit at a counter and have lunch; he’s overturned buses we’ve been sitting in because we tried to march for our civil rights; he’s pulled us over at night, and with only the night sky as a witness, he’s put us in an early grave.
He’s stood outside the voting booth with a shotgun when we’ve tried to vote. When we’ve refused to be intimidated and voted anyway, we’ve come home and found a cross burning on our lawn. He’s ridden to our house on horses and dragged our sons and daughters away in the middle of the night; we’ve recognized his eyes and the shape of his head under his white hood because we’ve cradled that head in our hands, we’ve combed that blond hair. We raised that boy, suckled him, watched him grow into a man, then watched him sell our children. He’s raped us, made more children, and sold those, too. He may be new to you, but trust me, we’ve met Donald Trump before.
White people: I understand your feelings of powerlessness; this sense of endless and bottomless unfairness, for most of you, is new. It’s the way we feel in Niggerland when “they” seem to own everything — the banks, the money, the food, the schools, the roads, the courts, the juries, the sun, the water, the air — sometimes even you. On a really bad day, it can feel like they own God. It can be very depressing.
Black sharecroppers in the South, however, knew that when you’re dealing with someone like Donald Trump, sometimes the only thing in the world bigger than a powerful white man is the weather.
You’re in the fields working, and something happens: The sky opens, someone says a twister’s coming and starts running, and God in all her fury snatches up a tree and it flies toward you like a toothpick. And while you are terrified, you are also mystified and mesmerized by the idea that God just might be an angry bitch and that there is a force in the universe that doesn’t give a damn about white men or their power, or human pettiness, or cruelty, or greed. And though your own house might be destroyed, you stand in that awesomeness, next to the man who owns you, as he cries for his Big House, which is smashed to pieces. He’s lost everything — you might have too, if you had anything. You both look at the sky with wonder. And for just that moment, before oppression is restored, you are just two bewildered creatures on the earth’s floor, staring up at a God who stares venomously back at you.
So, here’s the plan. While what is happening in this country right now is appalling, downright shocking at times, it is also incredibly banal and exhaustingly familiar. We must have a vision that extends beyond the assaults we now face. We have a political party, for example, that claims to “love America” and then continues to do everything in its power to disenfranchise individual Americans and diminish every ideal this country has stood for. Yet we must travel past a town called irony.
At the time of this writing, we’ve lost more than 200,000 people to Covid-19. My ancestors know what it is like to bury a nephew whipped to death by overseers on Sunday and still go to work on Monday. It isn’t easy, to be sure, but we can’t allow ourselves to be immobilized by grief or tragedy. We need to travel past a town called pain.
Blacks know the Tim Scotts and the Ben Carsons of the world, when the people you believe should be advocating for you betray you instead.
We know what it’s like to want to be free, to plan your escape, and when it’s time to leave, someone says, “Now, y’all know Master Trump’s been good to us. Ain’t you had enough to eat, a place to sleep, extra fatback and salt pork at Christmas, a Sunday every month to rest? I know a nigger whose master worked him until he dropped dead right there in the field and still made his family keep picking cotton during harvest time. Master Trump’s always been good to his niggers.”
“But Tim, didn’t he sell your little brother, Andy, last year?”
“The mistress said he felt real sorry about that, real sorry. But he owed a debt to Mr. Henry down at the bank, and he had to sell a few niggers or we was gonna lose Trump Tower!”
As painful as these betrayals have always been, and they are historic, Tim Scott and Ben Carson aren’t new. We need to travel past towns called heartbreak and despair.
During his debate with Jaime Harrison, Lindsey Graham told voters that he was once a 21-year-old young man in South Carolina who, after both his parents died 15 months apart, found himself alone in the world, the caretaker for his 13-year-old sister. He admitted that they relied on both Social Security and Pell grants to survive. And yet Graham continues to defend a president who refuses to pass a stimulus bill, who wants to repeal the Affordable Care Act, threatening to take health care away from a young man in America whose parents are both dead from Covid-19 and who now finds himself the caretaker of his younger sister. We need to get past a town called hypocrisy.
White people, trust me: We know white folks better than you do. We know Mitch McConnell, we know Lindsey Graham, we know Mike Pence, we know Bill Barr, we know Susan Collins, we know Ted Cruz.
We recognize a Senate that refuses to condemn or censure a Donald Trump, because we’ve seen those same cold eyes on the juries that refused to convict the men who killed our children, who allowed Emmett Till’s murderers to go free. We know silence, cowardice, and complicity. There is a human evil so impenetrable, so unapproachable, you can’t plead, you can’t cajole, you can’t beg for it to recognize its own humanity.
Sometimes the only place you can go, the only place left to go when you can’t get justice or peace anywhere else, is the Upper Room.
And so, when we pass through all these towns, we’ll find ourselves in a clearing. And in that clearing, we’ll find a place to lie down. And once we lie down, we’ll close our eyes, we’ll focus our mind’s eye, and we’ll make the journey to the Upper Room to pray about Donald Trump.
Here’s how you get there: You gather up your garments and you climb those Holy stairs one at a time. You don’t have to believe in God, but it helps. What you do have to believe in is a power that is bigger than you. If you can’t believe in God, believe in whatever controls the mystery of a flower unfolding from a seed, or the fact that every human being who has walked the earth entered this world through a woman’s body.
And when you are at one with that mystery, you surrender to it. And with all your humility, you ask that power for help. My ancestors have used it for centuries.
You say, lifting your hands to an open sky, “Creator, I know that even though they sold my child yesterday, I woke up this morning. So I know you must have a plan for me. My heart is dead, my chest heavy with a grief so great that my lungs can barely breathe. I know you must be breathing for me, because I am still alive.
“I don’t understand this place, where men sell children, I don’t know how I got here. I know there was water, the stench of salt and waste, and screaming. I don’t know where I am. They call me a name I don’t recognize. But it rained this morning, as it once rained in the village I come from, so I know that some part of you must have followed me here to this place, and that you remember my name. And I am asking for your help. Please breathe for me until I find my air.”
I understand your skepticism. What does any of this have to do with a presidential election? That prayer was our template. Now we pray for America:
“God, I don’t recognize this country anymore. I feel totally helpless, and I’m terrified about what’s going to happen in November. They continue to talk about interference from foreign sources on the news, they’ve manipulated the post office and the ballot boxes, they’re manipulating the courts, intimidating voters everywhere, with plans to frighten people at the polls. The president has suggested that if he loses, there will be violence in the streets.
“I don’t recognize my country. A man was murdered in the street, a knee on his neck for almost nine minutes, by police officers, and the world kept turning. Children have been put in cages as a ‘deterrent’ to illegal immigration. People are hungry and out of work. We say goodbye to our loved ones over the phone when they are dying in the hospital. The Covid numbers keep climbing, and the government just stands by and watches. I ask my children to leave the room when the president is speaking, because last week, my five-year-old son asked me, ‘Is Donald Trump going to come and get us?’ He has nightmares. I send him to bed telling him no, and try to comfort him. How can I tell him that I have the same nightmares? Who will comfort me?
“Divine Comforter, I am calling on you. I know America hasn’t always been a perfect place, but I believe in the ideal of what it should be, what it can be. Please give us another chance to realize this vision. Please protect us and protect this election and these great United States.”
Then we walk out into world, strengthened by humility, cloaked with grace. And we fight. We don’t get hysterical, we don’t shut down, we don’t have to yell or smash things. But we don’t back down, either. We march. We sing. We walk on with a stillness that announces itself as loud as the loudest scream. We approach the face of evil, and we look it dead in the eye. And when they stand in front of the voting booth with a shotgun, as they did to our great-grandfather, asking, “What you think you about to do, boy?” we say calmly but with determination, as we did in another time, in another place, “Excuse me, sir, but I came here to vote.”
We’ve been here before. Our ancestors knew, when you can’t control the evil of the world, you must become the weather. A howling wind through the trees, a blistering sun, an irresistible force. Our democracy is on a respirator now, and we must defend it.
Justice and nonviolent resistance became an electrifying force in 1955 when working-class Blacks who relied on the buses in Montgomery, Alabama, shut down the discriminatory system for an entire year, permanently changing the laws in that city. We need the spirit of transcendence that led these heroic women and men, many of them maids and laborers, to walk to work each day and say, “I can’t feel the hurt in my feet when there is a balm for my soul. And I will walk five more miles to work if it means a better life for my children.”
We need the Holy Ghost power that stopped Eugene “Bull” O’Connor, the commissioner of public safety in Birmingham, Alabama, when he ordered a battalion of firefighters to turn hoses on a crowd of protesters, including children, on May 5, 1963, often called “Miracle Sunday.” The firefighters not only resisted the order—it was reported that some of them cried.
The power of the crowd, who had walked from a local church, was both vulnerable and authoritative — a compelling, mystical combination. Whatever racist trance had possessed those firefighters when they’d hosed the same crowds only days before, it was broken, perhaps when they looked at the children and thought, “The little girl I am aiming this hose at could be mine.” Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. later wrote, “I felt there, for the first time, the pride and the power of nonviolence.”
The alchemy of grace and conviction works. It has worked. I know because I am alive. I write these words with the knowledge that once upon a time someone who belonged to my family would have been whipped or worse for even trying to learn the alphabet. Yet I read, I write. Something they did to survive must have worked — because I’m here.
No matter how much they try to distort the truth on Fox News or make us feel like fools for believing, the sacrifices of earlier generations matter. How many women had to die on kitchen floors and back alleys for just one woman to walk into a care facility, protected by Roe v. Wade, and make an appointment for her health — legally and safely? We will not go back. Their sacrifices matter. And we owe them our determination to see that Roe v. Wade is not overturned. A persuasive river of courage flows through history, from Harriet Tubman to the suffragettes to the rioters at Stonewall. We’ll never know all the names, but we know that river exists — because we’re here.
History has always had rogues, scoundrels, reprobates, damn fools, demagogues, men who have acted as children. Bullies. Dictators. As a human family, we’ve seen astounding acts of evil. But the thing about evil is not to make it personal or to take it personally. We have to look beyond the actors. The only way to combat evil is not to respond with evil, but to invest in a more compelling vision. Because of someone’s vision, I am married to the man I love.
Welcome to Niggerland. A place on the outskirts of town where there has been crime and poverty and drugs and lack of health care and denied educational opportunities. My white friends, you were once untouched by the pain of the people who live there. But please know, those divisions no longer exist the way they once did. Perhaps Donald Trump’s greatest achievement is that he’s turned every American into a nigger, black or white (including a few people who are convinced they hate niggers). One way or another, we’re all in the soup now.
Nigger. It’s an unpleasant word, and forgive me for using it, but it’s the right word. It’s not a Black person’s shame, but a white society’s shame for its ugliness. It’s a word meant to terrorize a group of people within a system of oppression and make them feel powerless so they won’t act and try to change it. In other words, in Donald Trump’s eyes, we’re all niggers now. There isn’t a single person or institution he doesn’t have contempt for.
What we are facing is bigger than Donald Trump. Perhaps he is the fulfillment of America’s karma in the world, our political shadow finally come to life. Or maybe he is the manifestation of our sins, the elections around the world we’ve interfered with, the leaders we’ve helped depose. He is the personification of the Ugly American trope, vulgarity incarnate, an ambling Frankenstein monster ripping the village apart with his bare hands. Politically moderate racists, who see themselves as vastly different from white supremacists, are horrified when they look in the mirror and see Donald Trump staring back at them.
Donald Trump is the walking embodiment of American pathology, the white male version of Toni Morrison’s roaming ghost-child in Beloved. His message isn’t really new—it’s his malevolence that’s profound. Maybe one day we will perceive his legacy as an opportunity that afforded fundamental change. If, as a country, we’d had an honest conversation about slavery and seriously considered reparations years ago, Donald Trump would probably never have happened.
We may not change his heart, but we need to alter ourselves so we are different when and if the next monster arrives. In the aftermath of what happens, assessments will be made, and we will have to acknowledge that while solidarity eventually came from unexpected sources — Republicans willing to abandon their tribe — this went on for far too long, and too many lives were lost.
There is a Black teenage girl who studies her lipstick one more time in the mirror before cutting off the bathroom light. She is going to a demonstration. There may be violence. But she believes in that preacher, Dr. King, and the sermon he preached on racial equality last Sunday. She knows it is dangerous; they’ve unleashed dogs on protestors; they turned hoses on families, pinning them against buildings and cars. People have been jailed, students have been clubbed, just for having the audacity to want to go to school with whites, to vote without retaliation.
It is 1957, and only a girl herself, she has no way of knowing that one day her daughter will look back at her through history. Her daughter will move into her dorm at a public university, buy her books, and although every battle won’t have been won, she will walk into the classroom her mother envisioned for her, without having to be escorted by the National Guard. She will claim the seat her mother earned.
We have a legacy to uphold; we have ancestors to honor. We’ve been here before. The names are always different. But whenever justice is threatened anywhere, there are always brave ones.
Revolution begins with a flower. Hold it your hand. And know that the man who owns real estate and golf courses all over world, in all his presumed omnipotence, doesn’t have the power to make a single flower.
And if he chooses to destroy that flower, there’s another flower next to it in the field. There will always be flowers. Legions of them, as there are legions of us.
And when your hope is restored and you remember who you are and what is possible to achieve with fortitude and grace, step out the door with that flower in your hair.
How will we get over? The way we’ve always gotten over. And when despair creeps in, as it sometimes does, remember that for every Lindsey Graham, there is a Diane Nash. For every Mitch McConnell, there is a Fannie Lou Hamer. For every Mike Pence, there is an Eleanor Roosevelt. For every Rudy Giuliani, there is an Audre Lorde. For every Mike Pompeo, there is an Ella Baker. And for every William Barr, there is a Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
She keeps working she keeps working she keeps working she keeps working she keeps working she keeps working she keeps working she keeps —
October 9, 2020