I was born in Hempstead, Texas. Hempstead, where Sandra Bland was found dead in a prison cell in 2015. In 1961 a white doctor delivered me and saved my life. Although my race was written as “colored” on my birth certificate, the doctors and nurses held me upside down, clearing fluid from my lungs the entire night until I could breathe normally.
I was raised seven miles away, in Prairie View, Texas, where Bland was arrested, stopped for failing to put on a turn signal. My father, Horace Bond, taught English and Shakespearean literature at Prairie View A&M University, a historically black school. Some of the first words I heard were Shylock’s “civil rights” soliloquy from The Merchant of Venice.
“If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?”
Texas was for me then, and is now, a mottled patchwork of racism, Shakespeare, violence, the music of Charlie Parker and Peter, Paul and Mary, frog legs sold on the side of the road, watermelon festivals from which we left sticky and sweet. Sitting in the back of my mother’s undergrad science class while she studied. Cocktail parties with ashtrays filling and overflowing and talk of Dr. King and LeRoi Jones (a/k/a Amiri Baraka).
Half of my family still lives in Texas: my cousins Beth, Dana, and Wilma, my 83-year-old cousin Doretha, and so many others, all of whom have for generations voted Democrat in a state that became Republican nearly forty years ago. Until, possibly, this year, because of the scorched-earth presidential campaign of Donald Trump.
In the 1960s mine was an all-black collegiate world. The only white people I saw were in ads and on television. When I was two and a half years old, President Kennedy was killed in Dallas, 214 miles away from my home. My sister and I played funeral for days, mirroring our grainy TV.
I was three when President Johnson, born in Stonewall, Texas, signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law. I was four when he signed the Voting Rights Act. It was a Texan who answered, with those two laws, the blood spilled, the echo of so many wrongs, the unfathomable bravery of so many men and women.
My initiation to that knowledge came when I was eight, when I found out how my aunt Carrie had been murdered, in 1938 or ’39, by the sheriff and his deputies. We were visiting my grandmother Mother Gatson in Beaumont. I heard her tell my father the story with a low, hollow sound to her voice that seemed to come from a deep well. He had a tape recorder and leaned close. She was on the front porch, her hair bound under a scarf, her eyes looking into nothing.
I learned the entire story later. Doretha had been a girl when Carrie was murdered. She said that the sheriff had thrown a grain sack stained with blood onto my grandfather’s porch. They opened the sack and Aunt Carrie fell out, covered in blood.
Carrie was very light. She could have passed for white, but chose not to. She’d had a relationship with a married white man. He’d built her a house. That was all it took. When the sheriff left Carrie, he’d yelled that he was looking for all the other “white niggers.” Many of her sisters and brothers left town; they became, in the words of Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13th, political refugees in their own land.
When I look at the men who support Trump — screaming, faces twisted, or leaning back with a toothpick and a conspiratorial sneer, smug in their whiteness — I know them. My mother knows them, my grandmother and her mother — all black women, black people in the South. They have the look of the men I imagine standing around my aunt while she fought for her life, the men who dragged her to that hill and shot her again and again and again. They are the same men who pinned a sign to the body of a dead black man, lynched, hanging from a tree, that read: “This Nigger Voted.”
These men have long seen themselves as victims of a “rigged system,” one ruled by a Jewish media and a mongrel president and now, possibly, God forbid, a woman. This is the land of open carry and the largest concentration of white supremacist groups in the country: militias, Nazis, skinheads, all poised for a tin-pot revolution when Trump loses — no, if he loses.
There is fear in me when I look at them. It is cellular, as if it entered my grandmother’s body, clung to the double helix, and remained, passed on with each child. I pray I haven’t passed it to my daughter. Fear is learned. So is hate. I believe it is possible to unlearn both.
It’s very possible that Donald Trump is helping along this reversal. There is a secret that lives in the heart, a different kind of cellular genome, a subtle and blatant racism in which the cells divide. The toxic lie. The sour scent that is taken in by whites and blacks and Latinos and Muslims. I am better than. I am less than. It’s been pumped into the air for centuries. The belief settles into the lining of your lungs, is oxygenated, moves through your body. Trump takes that secret and blasts it out of a megaphone.
At that moment there is a choice. For some, the choice is to grab hold of that secret lie like it is a lifeline. To leap for joy. No longer alone. I remember, early in the primaries, watching a reporter interview a newly minted Trump supporter. The reporter asked the young man if he believed what Trump was espousing. The man turned his head slightly to the left and right and almost whispered to the camera that he did. I imagine he is no longer whispering.
Others come face-to-face with that ugly truth, and in Texas some are realizing that that is not who they truly are. A friend’s brother-in-law, a geologist from Dallas whose sweat is red dye no. 40, is for the first time in his life not voting Republican. “I can’t do it,” he told his wife when she asked him about Trump. “That man is crazy.” The world rocked on its axis a few inches.
Perhaps it is where I was born, perhaps when. After the tiny and gargantuan injustices — after a time I believe a kind of cynicism crept into me. After we moved to Lawrence, Kansas, where my father taught at the University of Kansas, I remember watching ads on television for the Holiday Inn. Hotels, I thought, were like Libby’s TV dinners. Rare luxuries I had never seen up close. When we took the highway to Texas to visit family, we’d crossed the Texas border at night. We were exhausted, and I remember seeing a Holiday Inn on the road. I pointed at it, jumped from my seat, and yelled, “THERE!”
That night we all slept in our car on the side of the road. My parents didn’t tell us the reason that night, although I asked many times. Later I learned it was because although the Civil Rights Act had been signed, in Texas it had not truly been enacted, just as, a century earlier, Texas plantation owners didn’t bother to tell their slaves about the Emancipation Proclamation for over two years. The day the slaves in Texas finally found out is still celebrated as Juneteenth.
Barack Obama’s candidacy cracked through my cynicism. I remember making calls for his campaign in 2008. I went to phone call parties and was quite good at persuading people. I remember one call that, while I considered it a success, gives me great pause when it comes to this election.
I was sitting with about twenty to thirty people in a woman’s house. We were strewn all over, calling on cellphones from doorways, from the backyard swing. I was in the front yard, and I spoke with a man about voting for Obama. I cannot swear, but he may have been from Texas, certainly the South. He had the accent I knew so well. He asked me several questions about Obama, some quite harsh, questioning his religion, his experience, his intentions, but with an obvious real curiosity. He’d lost his job and was struggling, clearly dissatisfied with the Bush years.
Finally he asked, “Are you white?” I knew in that moment that he was asking for permission, from another white person, to vote for a black man. I thought about it for a moment and then I lied. I told him, “Yes. I’m white. I’m in a room with many other white people. Everyone here is white, and we’re all voting for Obama.” He got off of the phone saying that he would too. Obama won in a landslide, his margins better than polls had predicted. People like this man hadn’t told the pollsters the truth, did not admit it to their friends and families, but on Election Day, they voted their hidden choice.
My fear is that this same “shadow vote” may happen in reverse, certainly in Texas, and possibly throughout the United States. That Trump has given them permission. That something is awakened that they are ashamed of or embarrassed about. Too ashamed to tell a pollster that they are voting for a racist. But not ashamed to vote for Trump.
It’s a toss of a coin who will win this election in Texas. But it is impossible for white Texans to hide from themselves any longer. Because Texas is not only the men who murdered my aunt. It’s not only the GOP women who’ve excused Trump’s rape/assault “banter.” It’s also the group of white women who sent one Negro girl to college each year, including my mother. The red-blue point spread in Texas is the smallest margin it’s been in decades, and the Dallas Morning News endorsed its first Democratic presidential candidate since World War II. There are other brothers-in-law in Texas who aren’t voting for Trump.
While fear was passed to me on a genetic level, so were courage and deeply rooted pride. Blacks in Texas have never been defined by their oppression. Black communities in the rural South (and inner cities, for that matter) have never been “hell,” despite the world around them. Families worked together on small farms, and in white folks’ homes, to create something better. There were parents whose children became engineers, nurses, doctors, even a general in that small town in Newton County my mother came from, all of them nurtured with hope. I believe with this election this hope may be rewarded. If it is not, it will persevere.
Cynthia Bond is a novelist and the author of Ruby. She lives in Los Angeles with her daughter.