The Other Side of Fear

November 25, 2016   •   By Zinzi Clemmons

I GREW UP in a suburb of Philadelphia. There were mostly white people, some black people, and few in between. Like most places in America, my hometown was deeply segregated, and my family, as a mixed-race, immigrant family living in the white part of town, felt alone: caught between white and black, rich and poor, American and not.

My childhood was littered with small instances of racism, subtle reminders from my peers that I was different from them; that though I may have outperformed them in nearly every aspect of life, in this one respect — the color of my skin — I would always be inferior. There was the time I called my friends’ house and heard her parents mutter a racial slur in the background. Or when my college acceptances were dismissed as a result of affirmative action. Or when the opposite happened, and I was accepted as one of them, but on the condition that my identity was rejected — you’re not like those other black people, Zinzi. More than one of them said to me.

On November 8, Hillary Clinton won 59 percent of votes in my home county; Donald Trump won 37 percent.

It seems that many people are surprised at the racism this election has unearthed. This country is, always has been, and probably always will be virulently racist. Those of us who were unsurprised by the election results do not have the privilege of forgetting this fact. We did not go to bed on November 8th and wake up in a more racist country. It was just one of those moments when racism made itself seen, when it popped up to remind us: I’m still here.

So what exactly happened? Many of us are still piecing this together, trying to distinguish the truth from the ever-present media spin. To me, it’s simple: Trump, no political genius but rather a lucky idiot, used the oldest trick in the book, and it worked beautifully. Bigly. He saw in the white working class a receptive audience, and knowing that he couldn’t offer them any substantive help, fed them hateful rhetoric branded as “straight talk.” This drew a formerly reliable Democratic voting bloc to his side. The results support this narrative: According to NPR, Clinton’s numbers were down, marginally, with all groups, compared to Obama’s numbers in 2012. The one truly glaring difference was white working class voters. In 2012, they voted overwhelmingly for Obama, but in 2012, they flipped completely to Trump: by as much as 23 points in states like Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania — all states associated with the Rust Belt, and the Democrats’ so-called Blue Wall.

This remains Trump’s most (and perhaps only) successful negotiation; his biggest con job in a career of con jobs. While the rest of us are fighting the KKK, he does what he wants with the purse strings in Washington. It is a political strategy as old as time — and at this, its newest iteration, I stand unimpressed.

When my now-husband and I were looking for a place to settle in 2014, we decided on upstate New York, an area considered part of the Rust Belt, where Hillary Clinton campaigned heavily and won during her 2000 senate bid. It was cheap, and we needed a quiet place to finish writing our books. In its heyday, much of this area was the vacation destination of choice for New Yorkers, home to campgrounds and casinos. That was before jet travel became affordable in the ’70s, and those same families picked Miami, California, and destinations abroad for their holidays instead.

What is left of this place now is basically a ghost town: most of the old hotels and casinos still stand abandoned, along with empty farmhouses and warehouse buildings. Whenever I spoke to others there, I braced myself for the casual racist remark, or worse, because I am black and my husband is white. After Charleston, we noticed Confederate flags flown on pickup trucks and outside of farmhouses and trailers, and I felt like someone had danced on a family member’s grave. I cried, harder than I ever have, for people I have never met. But what happened most often was that people would ask us the same question, over and over: “Why would you move here?”

Over time, we learned what was behind that question. We had options, and this was a place for people who had none.

On November 8, about a year after we moved away, 55 percent of this county voted for Trump, to Clinton’s 41 percent.

A few months ago, longing again for city life and the open skies out west, my husband and I drove all of our belongings cross-country and moved into my grandfather’s old apartment in Los Angeles, a former working-class neighborhood, now an affluent, up-and-coming nabe that little resembles the place I visited as a child. It wasn’t long before we noticed that police routinely stop black drivers across the street from our apartment complex, because it constitutes a border with South Central, and this is their way of policing who comes into our neighborhood. The last time this happened, I waved at the police from our balcony to let them know I was watching. This time, they shone their spotlight at me from across the street, and barked into the loudspeaker, “What are you looking at?” I had trouble sleeping that night, playing out in my mind what would happen if they showed up at our door.

My grandfather served in World War II as a kitchen hand onboard a navy ship. He had dreams of becoming a deep-sea diver, but was denied that position because he was black. After the war, he worked as a baggage handler down the road at LAX for some 40 years. That one-bedroom apartment, now our home, is his biggest legacy.

A few weeks ago, after more than a month of filing noise complaints about our neighbors’ barking dogs, I finally met our building manager face to face. She was a small white woman with a Hispanic last name. When I dared to suggest that she had been ignoring our complaints, she abruptly ended our meeting by calling in a security guard to escort me out of the building. I wanted to tell her that I was a college professor, a writer, that other people respected me. But I knew that my character was beside the point, just as it had been in my childhood.

59 percent of Los Angeles voted for Hillary Clinton, to Trump’s 37 percent.

In an appearance on Real Time With Bill Maher, Trae Crowder, the self-styled “liberal redneck,” used a helpful metaphor to describe the role of race in this election. Racism, he said, was “the icing on the fuck-you cake” that Trump baked for his voters to serve to liberal America.

To further employ this metaphor, if we only fight over the icing, no matter how hard, that cake will still be there. I am not suggesting that we should simply ignore it. Just listen to the reports of hate crimes and presidential appointments, and you will know the opposite is true.

We will have to fight this battle on multiple fronts.

I canvassed for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. The work involved going out into middle- and working-class neighborhoods in Pennsylvania and asking people to vote for Obama, following up, and helping them get to the polls if necessary. Many of these neighborhoods were mostly white, with a historic reputation for racism. My first assignment was the Italian neighborhood adjacent to my family’s in South Philadelphia, which I had never ventured very far into due to this reputation.

I remember pausing in the street, clipboard in hand, feeling overwhelmingly that I was unprepared for what I was about to do. I was terrified. I thought to turn around and leave. I was a young black girl, all alone in a place where I knew people hated me, asking them to vote for a black president. But I summoned my courage and went forward, and on election day my guy won — including these neighborhoods — by a landslide.

Zadie Smith’s essay “Speaking in Tongues” was the first piece of writing that resonated with me as a mixed-race person. In it, her description of Barack Obama as “the man from dream city” cast as a positive the identity that I had so long seen as a negative, the motive for my rejection by blacks and whites, the underlying reason for my perpetual loneliness. The essay posited that, because multiracial people don’t have a culture of our own, we adopt a fluency in others’ cultures, and an ability to shape-shift into that which others imagine us to be. I am uncomfortable with the implication that this ability is uniquely tied to race, especially because of the privilege that multiracial people often possess; rather, it represents a position of being in-between groups, and anyone whose life is defined by this in-between status knows what I am referring to, and how valuable this quality can be.

In order to regain political power, we will have to reassemble Obama’s coalition. We will need to rebuild, or build for the first time, our more perfect union, our rainbow coalition. To do that, we will have to dream harder than ever before, to find points of connection with those with whom we don’t identify, of whom we might be afraid. Those of us who stand outside, or in-between, will be more valuable than ever, and those who want to help will need to stand outside of themselves, to venture deep into that terrain which causes us fear. This does not mean that we must ignore our own pain. For the unsurprised, our fear remains constant. It means that we must take care of ourselves and reach out to others. It makes me tired to think of all the work ahead of us.

But we were right to dream.

This is also a strong call to intellectual courage, to find the things that connect us as human beings. We will need tremendous courage to deal with the “icing,” and we will need imagination in order to deal with the cake.

For those of us whose candidate lost in the Democratic Primary and who are now seeing our party come around to our side, this is not a defeat — this is a confirmation. We were right to be idealistic, and it was wrong to dismiss us for it.


My first novel will be published in a few months. The novel is barely fiction. It started from a series of notes I took while I watched my mother die from cancer over a six-month period, when I returned to my family home in Philadelphia to care for her. I was 26 at the time; she died in 2012, the same year I canvassed for Obama’s reelection.

My mother was a lifelong educator in the School District of Philadelphia; for most of that time, she was a kindergarten teacher. My childhood memories are heavy with the stories she would tell me at the end of her punishing days: of parents, often drug-addicted, absent, neglectful, sometimes abusive — and, through it all, of her love for these children, who were so obviously in need of a protector.

My mother was born in South Africa under Apartheid. She and my father met when she was collecting banned literature in Botswana; my father was there on a post-college volunteering trip. They came to the US and had me. In between, my mother fought as her friends and family suffered and perished under a racist regime.

She was first diagnosed with late-stage multiple myeloma two years before she eventually passed away. The event that marked the turn in the disease’s progression — when it became so aggressive that she was immediately hospitalized, her body shrunken, tumors the size of gum balls growing out of her neck — coincided with the federal review of funding for the district’s Head Start program, a federally funded daycare program for low-income children, that provides things like meals to kids who would otherwise go hungry.

At the time of her death, my mother had risen through the ranks to become the assistant director of the program in Philadelphia, and when the review came up, she faced a crossroads. She could either start a new aggressive chemo regimen or continue working. She did not have the energy for both. She chose to work, because all her employees and all those children depended on her.

As much as I miss her, remembering that her life, and her death, had purpose, makes it easier.

There is something great on the other side of fear.

When I made the decision to return home to care for her, I was living a comfortable life in New York City, with friends and job prospects and a great apartment. All those things are gone now, and, to my surprise, what I have today is so much better. I will never forget the day I decided to go home. The thought of watching her die terrified me like nothing else — the idea of losing someone who was so much to me was paralyzing, world-shifting. It defied belief.

That evening, after receiving the news, I paused. I summoned my courage, and the next morning I got on a bus to Philadelphia.

People will face great harm as a result of the decision our country made. It will not be the same people who partook in this decision. Some of us will be given the choice to look away, or to harm ourselves defending them. But this threat is only scary if we resist it, if we succumb to the terror of what lies on the other side.

We must summon our courage, then proceed with strength.

What is on the other side is beautiful — it is everything. It is life.


Zinzi Clemmons is a writer and editor raised in Philadelphia, with roots in South Africa and Trinidad. Her debut novel, What We Lose, is forthcoming from Viking this summer.