This is a thought-provoking and moving personal account of ‘What It Is’ to be black in Trump’s America that will resonate with many people. Clifford’s experience is all the more poignant for the context provided by interviews with Trump supporters. He explores not only his own place in modern-day America but the motivation of Trump supporters. That includes how Trump voters see, or fail to see, what ‘their’ president means for black people and societal cohesion. Clifford is a powerful essayist and a good interviewer, allowing the subject to talk, there’s plenty to learn from his talks. The result of his labours is a powerful and engaging book. I can only admire his reason in an age of unreason.

Trump is an unashamed demagogue responsible for ramping up the polarisation of US politics, a man who accepts the support of the Ku Klux Klan with no moral misgivings. He gives succour to like-minded politicians across the democratic world from Boris Johnson (mini-Trump) in Britain to Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil. It’s easy for liberals to react with equal venom in combating Trump’s rhetoric but often that just reinforces prejudice and animosity. As Clifford Thompson pointed out in his interview with David Greene, NPR (20/11/19), there is a dilemma for opponents of Trump that stymies family debate:

“There are a lot of stories of liberals, you know, going to a Thanksgiving dinner, and their uncle is there, who’s a Trump supporter. And, you know, they either have an argument or they avoid the subject of politics altogether.”

Trump playing to the lowest common denominator gives licence to racism, empowering extremists, encouraging them to believe they have a legitimate role in political debate. That can lead to a tacit acceptance of the way they behave in society when they attack sections of the community.

Clifford Thompson was a fifty-three-year-old black man when Trump was elected. It made him question his symbiotic relationship with his own country, the country he was born in. This book is about that but also the feelings and thoughts of people who support Trump. A combination of long, meditative essay and interviews that says a lot about our modern times.

“I ask myself: what would have happened if that little boy went to the window instead of his auntie?” Meritt asked. “He saw her when she fell.” [Jefferson family lawyer]

The fatal shooting of a 28-year-old black woman, Atatiana Jefferson, in her own home by a white police officer in Fort Worth in October could be seen as an aberration if it was an isolated incident, it isn’t. This event occurred after the book was written but there are other tragic killings referred to by Thompson. Sadly, Atatiana Jefferson’s father died of a heart attack very shortly after the event. Wouldn’t any reasonable person question how this can happen in twenty-first century America?

Thompson is from Brooklyn. He’s lived his life by the principle that you take each person as you find them regardless of their skin colour. He’s an American proud of the black contribution to the nation. So why do some white people claim this is exclusively their country? Thompson grew up in a black environment, college was the first time he lived in a racially mixed environment. He was aware of racism and the distrust of his own community. In his mid-twenties he began to read James Baldwin, and loved not only his ‘wisdom and lyricism’ but also his opposition to racism.

“While the assassinations of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr., along with other aspects of the backlash against the Civil rights movement, left Baldwin embittered and disillusioned, they did not ultimately compromise his humanity or make him into a racist. He remained, for me, a model of how to conduct oneself with regard to race.”

Thompson notes: “Being white, I discovered, seem to make one exempt from the question of who one is. They were Americans, these white people, and it never seem to occur them, and certainly no one ever indicated to them, that they should think otherwise.”

Black people do question that simple acceptance of nationality but Thompson points out: After centuries of ‘blood sweat and investment, slaves made America as much as pioneers’.

He discovered jazz, in many ways the soundtrack to the twentieth century. A black contribution not just to American but to world culture. In his thirties, Thompson began questioning things as the father of a biracial child. America elected its first black president but the other side of the coin was the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner and Sandra Bland. Thompson had his own life, his own worries, no time to be ‘someone else’s conscience’, and yet American police men were killing black people. Then came Trump:

“. . .brought out xenophobia like a lava from a volcano? How do I respond to the fact that the majority of white voters, whom I have refused to hate as a group, supported this man? Should I hold on even tighter to the notion of being an American and fight to protect myself and my country from this menace? Or should I distance myself from a country where so many people seem to have demonstrated that they care nothing about me?”

Thompson explores rootedness, stability and security in an American identity – belonging. How does that sit with growing up black, Christian and rurally relocated to city. Thompson was becoming satisfied with his comfortable life but he knew the undercurrents presaged trouble and recognises that having children changes people:

“parenthood has given me, all at once and paradoxically, an appreciation for the fragility and preciousness of life, a sense of inadequacy in my role as shepherd of two young lives, and a tendency to wonder what life–all life–is for.”

Part of Thompson’s exploration of the issues involved interviewing Trump supporters. Bob, an ex-traffic cop living in a gated community, is an ordinary guy who’s moved from poor to comfortable and votes Trump. Bob thinks Trump is trying to do right by ‘you and me’, the system needed an outsider and the democrats have to work with him, this is the American dream. He feebly addresses the link to the KKK, it’s not Trump’s fault. Interestingly, Bob first met a black person only when he became a police officer. Over time Bob opens up to Thompson, things begin to come out:

“I think the Spanish people want to be successful more than the black people do. They’ve come here. They got themselves across the border. They paid their way to get here, fought their way to get here. They find their way to stay here. The black people that are here legally and are born here legally – but they’re just in the wrong mindset to do better.”

Then there’s Jack, the civil rights movement and women’s liberation passed him by, essentially figuring, as a man, neither issue was important to his happiness or personal welfare. The big problem for the US is terrorism and the political divide not racism. Trump is a smart businessman, tough, just what America needs. Fred, 84, is convinced that liberals just don’t believe the statistics when they say there’s a problem of police bias. Thompson teases out a lot more and I admit a lot more nuance but the ‘indifference, ignorance, and resistance’ to recognising racism in Trump is evident.

Jeannette from Puerto Rico via the Bronx gives a totally different point of view. Her experience of drilling down into why black children fail at a higher rate at school is investment, fear, deprivation, and crime related to need. Thompson cites Orwell, essentially saying that the poor don’t consciously chose to be poor, to not have life chances, to be stigmatised by some of society.

Thompson comes back to this question; “If Trump’s election makes me change who I am, then who was I, really?”

Again from the PNR interview:

“I still maintain my beliefs in, one, you know, calling myself an American and, two, judging people, if I have to judge them, as individuals. What’s changed, I think, is my sympathy for people of color who just can’t get there. But I choose to maintain this rootedness that I have in not being prejudiced and in identifying as an American.”

Paul Burke 5/5

What It Is by Clifford Thompson
Other Press 9781590519059 hbk Nov 2019