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Stayin’ alive

At this point, simply being black and not dead is protest

I learned about our new, more brazenly intolerant America a few months ago while shopping at a Costco in Augusta, Georgia. I’d chosen to wear a shirt my father had given me from one of his many civil rights reunions.

It simply says “Civil Rights Movement: Freedom Summer 50th Anniversary Reunion” in blue letters. The shirt is pretty basic, with only a picture of the state of Mississippi in the background, also blue with a gold trim around it. As I waited at the front of the store for a clerk to bring me an item I’d purchased, I watched as white people glared at me from near and afar. One man, aisles away, stared daggers at me until I left the store. An elderly white woman shook her head and sucked her teeth as she walked past me.

I was getting backlash for a shirt that celebrates civil rights leaders for their contributions. I thought the statement on the shirt was pretty innocuous. I thought America had accepted the civil rights movement as a necessary step toward equality. I’d underestimated the changing climate in United States. Blackness is and has been under attack like never before in my 30 years. Simply existing as a black person has become enough to cause disruptions, and be seen as protest.

Let’s not get it twisted. Donald Trump’s emergence as president-elect of the United States is an American referendum on President Barack Obama’s blackness.

We can talk about Trump’s win as an endorsement of sexism, though the majority of white women voted for him. We can talk about Trump’s victory as a symptom of gaps in education, though white people who voted for Trump crossed educational lines. We can talk about Trump’s place as the new president as a statement about economic disparities and the desire for the working class to find something new, but millions who voted for Trump earn more than six figures.

What we can talk about is the fact that Trump’s supporters are overwhelmingly white. And they want to reclaim the country from a black man who they believe threatens their way of life by simply residing in the White House. Trump’s political career began with him questioning Obama’s legitimacy as a U.S. citizen and it’s possible he locked up his election at that very moment. It may sound crazy, but many people who voted for Trump felt the same fear about an Obama in 2008 as many of us are feeling about Trump now.

We are at a place where simply being black and alive is protest. Where being black and where white people don’t want us to be is disruptive. Think of the treatment of the Williams sisters as they became tennis stars in the early 2000s and Tiger Woods as he started to dominate golf in the late 1990s — but the backlash against these three geniuses at their respective crafts wasn’t as quite as overt back then, when coded language and microaggressions reigned supreme. The backlash — the Williams sisters constantly being accused of rigging matches or when golfer Fuzzy Zoeller suggested Tiger Woods bring fried chicken to the Masters dinner — wasn’t enabled or magnified by social media — or by Trump.

In the weeks leading up to the election, we saw just how low the bar has become for being considered a disruptive black American. Singer Sevyn Streeter’s scheduled national anthem performance during an Oct. 26 Philadelphia 76ers game was canceled after she wore a shirt that simply said “We Matter.” What was even more confounding about the incident was that her shirt was called a “protest.” But what about the notion of “we” mattering is a protest? Especially if all lives supposedly matter? Streeter has been rescheduled to sing on Dec. 16.

Then, just last week, Beyoncé was announced as a headliner for the Country Music Association Awards. Parts of the show’s huge fan base reacted with outrage. The barrage of racist retorts — like for example, “Beyonce overrated racist n—– b—-” — on the awards’ social media pages was so vitriolic that they scrubbed all of its accounts of Beyoncé’s electric performance with the Dixie Chicks, of Daddy Lessons. This is all despite the African-American roots in country music, and that Beyoncé performed a country music song from her acclaimed 2016 Lemonade.

The list goes on: The backlash from social media when Marvel’s Luke Cage features an all-black cast. Or when the legendary The Wiz resurfaced as a live play on NBC. Or when a Harry Potter character appears as a black woman. Or when a video game like Mafia III features a black protagonist, and becomes wildly successful and people hate on it. The problem? Black people, faces, and avatars in spaces where white people didn’t believe they belonged. And in Beyonce’s case, her existence was disruptive and needed to be erased.

Erasure seems to be the formula for combating black greatness in spaces where we’re not wanted. So it’s no coincidence that Trump’s first order of business as the president of the United States is to erase Obama’s existence from U.S. policy. Trump wants to parse out 25 or so of Obama’s executive orders and repeal them. On his first day in the White House.

But no matter how much he wants to erase the Obamas, he can’t. Their legacies will still be there. The hope they inspired won’t go away, no matter how dire things seem. And that’s the message to gather from all of this. No matter how hard racism tries to erase us, we’ll continue to exist. And that persistence — the dedication black people have to not budging has become one of the most disruptive things we can do.

As these next four years roll on, black Americans will continue to live and thrive in spaces in which we’re increasingly made aware that we’re not welcome. Unfortunately, that unwelcome space has only grown in the last 48 hours. But we’ll still be here, thriving in the face of those who don’t want us. Disrupting. Living. Loving. Whether we’re at awards shows, political offices, or celebrating blackness in aisle seven at Costco.

David Dennis Jr. is a senior writer at Andscape and an American Mosaic Journalism Prize recipient. His book, The Movement Made Us, will be released in 2022. David is a graduate of Davidson College.