Nyssa Chow is a current OHMA student. In this post, she responds to Paul Ortiz's recent talk on "Oral History in the Age of Black Lives Matter" by offering reflections on her personal experiences and fears amidst the current landscape of American culture and politics.
I’m afraid to do the interviews I want to do. At the time that I’m writing this, it is June 2016. Donald Trump is the Republican nominee. The UK has just voted to leave the EU. And yesterday, my friend went on a five-hour bike ride through upstate New York, texting me picture after picture of the Trump signs posted on people’s lawns. I’d chosen not to go on that bike ride; I’d decided not to apply to that job in Texas right now either because I was scared of places with a lot of Trump signs on lawns.
I’m afraid of the people in those houses. I’m black and a woman and an immigrant, with an accent. I’ve lived in America for seventeen years and I’ve never been more scared to ride my bike in unfamiliar places—bucolic or otherwise. Now I’m deciding not to do the interviews I want to do either—because I’m afraid. I want to capture stories about what’s happening now. I want to talk to people about what they think of this moment. But I find myself hesitating to stray too far from “safe” spaces—and I have to say, I feel ashamed of that. But at the same time, my mother is relieved.
It was the look in one man’s eyes that did it—a cab driver in Quincy, MA. I could only really see his eyes in the rear view mirror, a look so feral that I breathed shallow for all twenty-seven minutes of that drive. My white boyfriend was sitting next to me in the car, and the cab driver engaged him in exaggerated neighborly repartee before launching into vitriol about the black immigrants taking all the welfare and who had no self-respect. Animals, really. Twenty-seven minutes. He was for Trump.
Just to be clear, this is far from my first experience with the phenomena known as racism. Far from it. What makes me so disappointed in my hesitation to do the interviews I want to do, is the fact that I have not hesitated in the past. Two years ago, I moved to Texas on a whim; I wanted to experience another part of America. I talked to everybody—even my neighbor with a confederate flag in his yard. No problem. It was respectful and we came to some middle earth understanding about the relative symbolism of that proud artifact. Hell, I was even escorted out of store by a boutique owner who preferred not to have my kind there I guess. And I was sad, deeply sad and hurt, by some of these encounters. But the look in that Trump supporter’s eyes? I was afraid. Every part of me said—you are not safe. This person might hurt you… on the outside.
I see that same look at Trump rallies in television. I strayed onto a street near Grand Central where a Trump Rally was being held, and I saw it there too. So I’m scared to do the interviews I want to do. And I’m sad about that, because I desperately want to know, to comprehend on a deeper level what is going on right now. I desperately want to understand why they feel the way they do. But I guess that’s what fear does. It closes all doors to communication. You barricade yourself against each other even more, becoming even more afraid in the dark. Pretty soon you only feel safe on your own block.
Incidentally, someone put up a Trump sign in their window four doors down to the right of my building. So now, when I leave home, I turn left. Lights out, I guess.