I still remember the sinking, stones-in-the-stomach feeling that came over me when Atticus Finch lost the trial defending Tom Robinson. I’d been in bed with my covers huddled around me in the chill of my converted basement bedroom when I broke into hot salty tears and ran off to find my mother. I’d never read a story like To Kill A Mockingbird before, a story where the bad guys won. I kept waiting for Scooby Doo and Shaggy to pull off the masks of the thieves and reveal their scruffy faces, red and cowed. I couldn’t believe that moment in the story never came.
I felt the same way the night I got a notification that Donald Trump had been elected president.
Like the earth had shifted out of balance.
Like justice and goodness had taken a fatal blow to the head and would not recover.
I’d gone to bed because I was beginning to see the inevitability of a Trump win, and I could already feel myself getting physically ill. Why stay and up and watch if history wasn’t going to be made after all? But rather, the dark, corrupt underbelly of our country–the racism, sexism, and xenophobia that I thought we licked decades ago–would prevail?
I took the loss personally.
It confirmed all my deepest fears about our country. That America is a place where powerful men can violate women’s bodies and never be held accountable. That America is a place where black men like Tom Robinson are better off trying to run than face the miscarriages of justice in our system. That America is a place where refugees are no longer welcome, but feared, the statue of liberty a postcard relic of our more naive selves, signifying nothing. That America is a place where we exploit our land and animals at the expense of a future generation we don’t have the imagination to care for. A place where the LGBTQ community has not only rogue shooters in the night to fear, but their own government.
I could go on.
This past weekend I went to hear Rep. John Lewis give a lecture. A member of the the civil rights movement’s Big Six and personal friend of Martin Luther King Jr., the man led a march on Selma and had his skull fractured by a police baton, but it didn’t stop him from fighting for justice for the next 40 years of his life. I drove across town to East Nashville, a place where no one looked like me except the handful of white college students. I came because I thought that John Lewis would tell me how to fight. I came because I knew I’d gotten lost.
But John Lewis didn’t explain how to topple hatred and bigotry. He didn’t even mention the name Donald Trump. Instead, he told us about how his father was a sharecropper in Alabama and his great grandfather was a slave. He told us about nonviolence and love.
In a crisp navy suit, he told us about a 70-year-old ex-member of the Klan who’d come to his office just a few years ago to confess that he’d been the one who beat John Lewis at a sit-in years ago.
“I told him I accept your apology, and I forgive you. And he just sat in my office, and we cried.”
John Lewis told us not to give up and to stand for what we believe in, but mostly he just told us to be the Beloved Community for each other.
Lately I’ve been thinking about what that means.
I grew up in a small town in Georgia with a defunct Levi’s factory and an army of unemployed seamstresses. When I moved there with my family at the age of 6, our town had a McDonald’s and a Waffle House. No Walmart, no Burger King, and no industry to speak of, the front porch of each trailer a history of stoves, washing machines, and toys that had given out long ago, but were stuck here, just like the rest of us.
As a kid, I was always aware of the presence of poverty, although my parents never pointed to it directly or gave it a name.
“What size basketball shoes do you think Tanya wears?” my dad asked casually one night, as he, my little sister, and I wandered around Payless.
Tanya was a girl on my under-8 rec basketball team who showed up to practice every week in tattered Keds with peeling soles that split apart from the fabric when she tried to run down court.
“Tanya? I don’t know. At least five sizes smaller than Abby’s,” I said, smirking at my little sister with her long, boyish feet.
My dad rolled his eyes and then pulled out a pair of white, plasticky high-tops with pink laces, examining them with his brow furrowed the way I’d seen it every time one of us was sick with the flu.
The next week Tanya showed up at basketball practice wearing the new sneakers. We never talked about it.
When I was in my early teens, a skeletally thin man with a silver ring of hair around his bald scalp showed up at our house with his sister. He’d driven up in a beat up pick-up with his lawnmower in tow. Their electricity had been turned off, they said, and could they mow our lawn?
The audacity of that need..
In the rural South, hunger and want fight their way to the surface and demand to be noticed. And even so, you know that you’re only seeing the tip of the iceberg, the nicest corner of the trailer park.
Today I live in Nashville in a neighborhood of modest ranch houses that stretch as far as the eye can see. We gather on the online community forum to sell old bunk beds, or locate our lost cats, but we keep to ourselves. I attend a church made up of people like me. My husband and I work in white collar jobs and own Macbooks. I share articles from the New York Times about Syrian refugees and the black lives matter movement on my facebook. I don’t think about the town I left. Maybe I’m the problem.
I’m beginning to understand the resentment and frustration of the Trump supporters. His victory caused me to crane an ear toward voices I haven’t listen to in years.
It’s a time to fight as much as it is a time to hear our neighbors and a time to seek forgiveness.
And maybe this is where I’ve failed. And maybe the rural poor, the old man with his lawnmower and little Tanya, these people we’ve–I’ve–failed so profoundly, maybe they can forgive me too.