The day after Donald Trump was inaugurated, our car got a makeover. I stripped off the Obama 2012 magnet and rehomed it on our fridge. I carefully took down the petite Tanzanian flag we had hanging from the rearview mirror, apologetically sliding it into the glove compartment for a brighter day.
My husband, while maybe not as determined to change our car as I was, understood. Donald Trump, a white supremacist, had just been elected; his rhetoric highlighted a truth as American as apple pie: it’s dangerous to be a black man in America. And my husband, who is black, is also an immigrant.
This election shifted our focus into survival: blend in. It’s why any traces of his African home country are gone from our car; no need to get attention from emboldened anti-immigrant folks or police. It’s why, even though he happily attends an HBCU, there is no proud bumper sticker declaring the fact on the car.
Blend in. Survive.
Recently, we had some friends over to watch the World Cup semi-finals. We cheered on France as they won, and when it was over, my husband and his friend (also an African immigrant) took our daughter and his niece to the local park. They dutifully brought soccer balls with them, covered themselves in bug spray, and carried cold water bottles to protect them from the July heat.
A few hours later, they were still gone. Soup was bubbling on the stove; the table was set and ready for dinner. I called my husband, but he didn’t pick up.
I knew they were probably just distracted, but as I flicked through my Facebook feed, headline after headline told me what I already knew: Sometimes ICE goes after green card holders. Sometimes they detain children who are U.S. citizens. Sometimes people call the police on black men just playing with their kids at the park.
And you know, although I’ve always been cognizant of the dangers inherent in my husband’s mere existence — and our daughter’s, for that matter — it is different now.
When they used to go out and play at the park for hours, I’d relish the opportunity to dive into a book or get some work done. But lately, it’s different.
This time, I got in my car and drove over to the park , which was just around the corner. I breathed a sigh of relief when I saw them kicking the ball back and forth — indeed, having just lost track of time.
But I knew in my gut, too, that so many families don’t get that moment of relief: too many of our children are being put in cages, targeted, traumatized. Too many loved ones aren’t coming home safe.
As I drove away from the park, my mind drifted to a poem by my friend DéLana Dameron, a beautiful artist who attended UNC with me and now lives and creates in Brooklyn. The poem, entitled “My Love Is Black,” details the worry that can be inherent in loving a black man in America:
“You might say fear/is a predictable emotion/& I might agree. Whenever/ my husband leaves/ for his graveyard shift/when he prepares to walk/into the abyss of black/sky, I am afraid/tonight will be the night/I become a widow.”
But what haunts me, as I breathe deep that for tonight, at least, my family is here, safe, are her next words:
“I don’t want to love like this.”
This kind of love is beautiful and strong but terrifying and exhausting. It is akin to that feeling of panic you get when you dive deeper than you’d intended, and are farther from air than you’d planned. Loving like this in Trump’s America is a rip current, and we are trying to stay afloat.
The poem ends with the decision to momentarily forget the fear so they can live in love. It is what we have decided to do, too. We’ve talked about risk and fear too many times. I’ve weighed how to best use my privilege as a white woman without endangering my family, who lacks that privilege.
I know some that may read this will scoff at this fear, or say if I hate it all so much I should leave, or roll eyes at the notion of white privilege.
The truth is, this is who our country has always been. Our country has battled since its inception the wealthy elite who believe the democratic liberty of the majority encroaches on their own economic liberty — capitalism at its finest.
In other words, our country is entrenched in a battle for its soul. Will we eventually be able to put equity and compassion above the wealth of a few billionaires? It’s a question I don’t know the answer to, although I know that to survive requires resistance and collective organization.
Love and joy are acts of resistance we choose right now. It’s how we are staying afloat.
It’s admittedly hard to forget fear, some days. At the end of the day, regardless of one’s personal politics, the fact remains that hundreds of families have had their loved ones taken.
Sometimes it is by ICE: 3,000 migrant children (some of them U.S. citizens) have been separated from their families and put in cages. Dozens of our neighbors in the Triangle have been taken. At least eight people have died in ICE custody this year, not including the reported miscarriages that have occurred to shackled pregnant migrant women.
Sometimes our loved ones are taken by over-policing and mass incarceration: In the Durham jail in 2016, 25 percent of folks there had not been convicted of anything, but could not afford their bail.There have been 13 deaths in the Durham County jail in the last decade, and over 150 deaths in North Carolina’s jails in just the past five years. According to the Vera Institute, in 2015 black people, who comprised about 38 percent of Durham’s population, encompassed more than 80 percent of the Durham jail population. But, as Durham’s Inside-Outside Alliance says, “A world without cops, cages, and borders is possible.”
It may be hard to choose joy every day, but we can always choose to avoid complacency and fight for a more just world.
Katie Mgongolwa lives and teaches in Durham. You can reach her at email@example.com.