On September 11, 2001 I was a 32 year old professor at Washington University in Saint Louis, making a left turn onto Forest Park on the way to work. As I listened to The Tom Joyner morning show Joyner and his crew made to joke about a plane flying into the twin towers. From Joyner’s description I’d gathered it was a small aircraft that’d made some type of mistake. When I got into the office just a few minutes later I realized, like he did, that we were talking about something much bigger. I spent much of that day. I remember going to the dorms with a colleague to check on students. I remember watching the news with colleagues as they reported that the attack was both coordinated and worldwide–something they ended up peeling back. I was scheduled to teach Public Opinion that semester, a straightforward class beginning with DeTocqueville and ending with survey research. I remember decided to scrap the course and design a new one from scratch (with the students’ permission).
I got a call the next day from Sam, my best friend from home. Like the vast majority of people in Inkster, Michigan, Sam didn’t have a college degree. He wanted to get the word from “the expert” about what would happen next.
I walked him through the domestic and international shifts in policy that would come as a result. I told him that certain populations would be under increased surveillance. That this would justify an entire set of draconian policies that would become a new normal. I told him that the world as we knew it wouldn’t ever be the same.
That Sunday morning I got a call from his brother.
Sam had been killed in a home invasion. He sold weed as a way to make extra income, and he’d been robbed….but this time they robbed him while his girlfriend and her young children were in the home. He died defending them.
He never saw the new world.
I spent much of the time at the funeral trying to convince our people to not take matters into their own hands. (I think I failed.)
I, like many of us, never saw Trump coming. Though I knew Obama would be the first self-identified black president the moment I heard him speak in 2004, I never imagined Trump would win. I thought he was far too broken. And that the numbers were against him.
(I hadn’t taken the FBI or Russia into account.)
I dreaded the inaugural. I’d been an Obama critic since I saw that 2004 speech.
But unlike some of my colleagues I knew there was a difference between a candidate who would run the US as if it were a Third Reich infused 21st century banana republic and a flaming neoliberal who still believed in black cultural dysfunction. I now live in Maryland and could’ve easily voted for a third party candidate with no fear…but I still voted for Clinton. It was the hardest vote I’d ever cast the last 31 years.
When the election turned out the way it did, I fell into a deep haze. I think there are really only three populations who really have a sense of what might be coming–blacks who survived Jim Crow (and its northern variant), Jews who survived the Holocaust, and immigrants who fled authoritarian regimes. The first two populations are old and dying…the last population is likely too small to matter, and too foreign to really inform us (although Trump should be understood as part of a larger transnational project most of us write and think domestically, focusing solely on what’s happening here). If 9/11 ushered in the new world, this moment sees that new world mature.
A couple of nights ago I was on the laptop in my basement working on a Trump-related essay (“Against Hope”) and my 16 year old son came to me.
He told me he was probably going to be up late talking to a friend.
Her 14-year old brother had been stabbed and killed by a 17 year old. They’d had a longstanding feud.
His friend, her brother and their two siblings–all went to school with my kids. I knew them. Their parents immigrated to America from Ethiopia. Like my own children when you saw one of them you knew IMMEDIATELY who they belonged to. Beautiful, mischievous kids.
I had a long talk with my son and my daughter.
Today I’m attending a funeral. Not for the death of Obama’s imagined post-racial world. But for that 14 year old boy. And I mourn for him, for his family, for the 17 year old, and for my own children. That boy’s parents aren’t going to spend the next few days worrying about the Trump administration. Their minds will be elsewhere.
I DO believe that we’ve never seen anything like what’s coming.
But for struggling folk like Sam, for not-so-struggling folk like Moses family, like my own family, there are a few troubling constants. No matter what the new world brings. There are troubling constants.
We’d do well to keep this in mind.