In an acting class I took in college, the students were asked to do an exercise related to public solitude,” or the exercise of truly feeling alone in the presence of others. We were charged with remaining in tune with our thoughts and being both aware of, but disconnected to, the sights and sounds around us.
I am in Philadelphia this week, attending my first Democratic National Convention. If you have never been to one of these, I can best describe it as a county fair on steroids, with people in suits standing in stark contrast to ones wearing Uncle Sam hats and other pieces of Americana flair. It’s dizzying, to say the least.
Here, there is both celebration (the excitement over the pending nomination of Hillary Clinton and lamentation over the dénouement of the Obama presidency) and internal conflict in the form of delegates and supporters of Bernie Sanders who staged various acts of protest and, at times, petulant tantrums. Overall, the majority of the attendees from outside of the media—and some from within—seem to be high on patriotism, party pride and the possibility of electing the next president of the United States.
Once I’d taken in all the sights, sounds and smells, a wave of public solitude washed over me rather abruptly, and I felt as though I was watching everything happen from the outside.
As women cheered the ‘last glass ceiling’ being shattered, I couldn’t avoid thoughts of the fact that a cartoonish reality star who speaks as if he has not yet moved on from picture-less books has a better chance at winning the American presidency than the most brilliant Black woman among us. It was hard not to wince at the juxtaposition of “Mothers of the Movement,” a group joined by the tragic loss of their children (whose deaths are believed to have been caused by racism), the consistent pro-law enforcement messaging that often skirted over police violence.
Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, arguably the face of ‘Stop and Frisk’ policing was given space to speak on behalf of Secretary Clinton. Where does this invite my people into the American process?
Consider that the announcement that all remaining charges against the officers involved in the death of Freddie Gray would be dropped came in the middle of this deep-fried spectacle of American nationalism and liberal self-congratulatory rhetoric. It’s hard to feel present when the ‘greatness’ of America is simply inaccessible to so many of my people, people who look like the sitting president.
Meanwhile, as the DNC is taking place and aiming to fill the party with hope, conservative Fox News host Bill O’Reilly has taken it upon himself to make the case that chattel slavery was not actually that bad, referring to our ancestors who were kept in bondage as sometimes being “well-fed” and kept in “decent housing,” as if meat and a pallet were acceptable compensation for being bought, bred, raped and held against one’s will. It’s despicable that anyone would feel comfortable reducing the horrors of slavery to an unpleasant job, as if bearing the lash and being separated from one’s home, family and identity can be described as anything other than cruel.
O’Reilly, and others who took umbrage with First Lady Michelle Obama’s reference to the enslaved Africans who built the White House,reminds us of a reality that is never far from my mind, but particularly difficult to reconcile at a time like this: I am nothing but a n*gger in the eyes of many of my fellow Americans. I, and people like me, deserve abusive policing, second-rate schooling and other barriers to the American dream.
We often laugh off, or express offense, at Republican nominee Donald Drumpfs “Make Donald Drumpf Again” messaging because we know that America has never been great to her Black children. Furthermore, even with tragedies like the death of Gray and countless others who befell a similar fate, this is still likely to be considered the best we’ve had it here to date. We are called divisive, lazy and entitled for demanding more of this country, liars for remembering our history. We are told over, and over again to either wait for progress or that we have no right to expected in the first place. This silencing is not exclusive to the right, not by far.
For all of the things about President Obama (and his family) that fill me with pride, and for the very clear reasons that I have identified this party as the one that best fits my personal beliefs, as far as the viable options go, the disconnect I feel from this process has never felt more profound than it has this week. As I greet smiling faces and observe the many people who share my heritage who have put their blood, sweat and tears into making this very conference (and the two primary campaigns that preceeded it) happen, I want to feel connected, engaged, enthusiastic and present. Alas, I just find myself wondering when I get to stop being a burden, a stepchild, an afterthought.
In the days to come, I’ll force myself to write something about voting, about what it means to me in general and what I say to those who demand that I get in line with the party I’ve chosen, or that I divorce them for good and seek other representation (and I’ll steel myself against the backlash that will come from every possible side.) For now, I’ll close with this: we deserve to live in the America that President Obama boasted of in his address last night, one that is “decent and generous” to all. I regret that I, and others like me, have yet to visit such a place.