Surviving While Black at the Republican National Convention

BY: JANELL ROBERTS 

Editor's note: This piece is a continuation of a previous article written by the author titled, "What I learned about My Blackness Through My Summer Internship". While the events written below occurred at the same internship, this opinion piece is a separate reflection of what it was like for the author to attend the Republican National Convention as a black woman. We, at Blackprint HQ, hope that all who read the piece will treat it with respect and positivity, as it is always a tremendous feat to share such troubling experiences with a large audience. Thank you. 


The plane ride from my home in Texas had been long. I was now waiting outside at Hopkins airport in the 98 degree heat of Cleveland wearing a black blazer, a black dress, and stockings.  Sweat had beaded around my forehead, and my Lyft driver was still 10 minutes away.

To my left and right were signs reflecting the frantic excitement of a national political convention. Anxiety swept through me when I suddenly realized what I was getting myself into. This was a pivotal part of my summer-- heading to a rally for Donald J. Trump. And here I was. A black, liberal and educated woman who was there only to gain professional skills to use at my PWI internship.

My Lyft driver, a blue-eyed, grandfatherly man in a Polo shirt, drove up in a Prius.  It was air conditioned - that was a relief.  He talked about his time served in Vietnam and his son who now lives in Scotland. And he talked about how Trump would make America great again.

My heart stuttered. Here I was speaking with a decent and kind man who supported a man who I find neither decent nor kind.  Our views are different. But we had an understanding and respect for each other.

“I’m worried,” I said to him as we drew closer to the Trump rally.

“Why are you worried?” He asked as he looked at me through the rearview mirror.

“I’m black.”

I don’t know why I said it.  How could he understand the fear I had for the man he thought could save his country? A man who often belittled and disparaged people of color.

“You’re going to be okay,” he said softly. “You’re very respectful, and you’re extremely bright. Just make sure to take care of yourself. Trump supporters aren’t bad. We’re good people. I promise.”

The car stopped on Euclid, a street crowded with thousands of Trump supporters with signs and Trump attire, loudly embracing their candidate.

Police officers were the first thing I noticed--- their uniforms and stern posture made them stick out. An instant despair and worry swept throughout my body whenever their eyes met mine. All I could think was, don’t do anything to draw their attention. Brutal police response was very real; For Sandra Bland, Mike Brown and Philando Castille. It could be for me as well.

The only black people I saw were those selling Trump shirts and trinkets.  I wondered what they were thinking. Did they believe any of this? Were they truly there for him? Or was this their only way make a living?

“Hey Janell, how are you?” One of my white colleagues asked as she embraced me. She was excited and I searched her eyes for any sign of worry. There was none.  

She held my hand and gushed with excitement as she pulled me through the Trump crowd and police. Spot news crews  were set up throughout the streets, “Make America Great Again” hats were everywhere. “Jesus is Angry” signs were hoisted high in the sky.

We had arrived at the place we would call our homebase for the trip. My boss immediately put us to work, and I was thrilled that I had been blessed with this opportunity. For a moment I felt at peace-- I was now surrounded by other liberals who shared my beliefs.

Yet the uneasy feeling returned whenever I would look up to find stares from hundreds of Trump supporters glaring, as if I were an uncommon breed.

Even if I supported Trump, I would still stand out like a third eye. I would still be unacceptable-- They were white and I was not. They were comfortable with racism, but discomforted by my race.

It was around 3 o'clock when the other interns and I were invited to a private event associated with the Trump campaign. Two of us waded into the crowd to speak to some of the Trump supporters, when a blue-eyed man gave me a deadly glare and a brunette woman with a green dress zeroed in on me and insisted, “This is a private party, so you have to leave.”

My colleague stared and walked out with me into the lobby. I told my boss and fellow interns what had happened, and they rushed to assure me with love and hugs. While I appeared comforted and confident on the outside, I had begun to question my sense of worth.

Why would you come here, I thought to myself. You knew this would happen. You told your boss this would happen, she didn’t listen and you didn’t listen either. Your friends back home warned you, the world warned you, the media warned you. My kind was not acceptable here.

My boss rushed to my defense, confronting the woman in green. “Did you say something to her?” my boss demanded. “Did you make her leave?”

“Well, this is a private party.” The woman in green responded.

“Yes, and she was personally invited to this private party.” my boss pressed on as I stepped out the door. I felt naked, I felt exposed. I didn’t want any trouble. I didn’t want a scene because I was already too scenic.

To the woman in the green dress, did I scare you? Did my knowledge terrify you? Did you catch a glimpse of #blackexcellence?

My boss came out upset muttering “Let's go, since they don’t serve blacks. They have no idea who you are, you could’ve been a politician’s girlfriend.”

A politician’s girlfriend. Not a politician, but politician’s girlfriend.

My boss defended me, but she belittled me without even knowing. Could I blame her? This was our world. This was our society. She defended me because one of her interns was in trouble. She didn’t understand … She has a good heart.

I told myself to brush it off, that I’m a good person and if nobody understands that, it’s their problem. I told myself I’m worthy of respect. I told myself, that I am a part of God’s chosen people.

I needed a moment to catch my breath, a moment of truth. I stepped away from my peers, as they took photos with senators and politicians laughing at the ridiculous signs. Privilege, I thought to myself.  I’m a black woman, and that means having a certain discomfort that not many others have ever experienced.

I rested my head against the warm brick wall when I noticed three black police officers looking over at me. I wanted to know if their thoughts were kindred to mine? I wanted to speak, but I was afraid, I was afraid to ask it out loud.

Being at the convention made me feel incomplete. I feared walking the streets, when hundreds maybe thousands of police officers were standing in the middle of the road, trotting by on horses or riding bikes as if they were looking for war.

Many events we attended provided great professional opportunities, but were spoiled because people could not accept the color of my skin. How did Dr. King do it? What I went through could never compare to the racism and hate he faced everywhere he went. How did Jesse Owens maintain his strength, in company of Nazis who refused to even shake his hand? How did my grandparents deal with it? What if what I was doing meant next to nothing?

Doubts flooded my brain, I needed to clear my head. I called the one person who could understand.

“Hey, Jay!” My mother's warm voice said.

“It’s hard mom”

“You can do this,” she said. “Just remain calm, don’t let anyone offend you. You are black and you love being black. Let those people remain ignorant, God has kept you woke for a reason.” She was right, I knew she was.

“Why does this have to happen? Why do things have to be this way? People stop and stare, some are rude, some won't even serve me food.” I didn’t go into the full details about the woman in the green dress. I didn’t want to scare her, I didn’t want to make things worse.

The voice of my boss interrupted the conversation. “Janell you ready to go?”

“Not everyone is blessed with the freedom to be open minded Janell,” mom concluded. “Call me as soon as you get home, I love you.” I hung up my phone, indulging in the super power of love that my mother sent my way, I felt revived.

“Where are we going now?” I asked.

“I don’t know were just following everyone else.”

I stopped when I noticed that our only route to our destination was down a singular street, a row of police officers positioned at either side. My heart accelerated, sweat formed around my temple and I remained still.

“Janell, come on.” My colleague said reaching for my hand with a smile on her face. “Look how cool this building is.” I didn’t notice the building, I was fixated the cops that lined the crosswalk with guns attached to their hips and plexiglass masks protecting their faces. I didn’t want to pass them, I didn’t want to walk near them. I lost brothers and sisters to brutality, I didn’t want to lose me today.

“I don’t feel comfortable walking through them,” I began hesitantly. “I can wait over here for you guys to get back.”

“No, come on. Nothing's going to happen, I’m right beside you.” My heart accelerated. Why wasn’t she understanding? Why wasn’t anyone getting it? This was making me nervous.

“I’m right beside you” stood out to me. Yes she was physically right beside me, but if you’ve never been discriminated against, you will never understand what it’s like.

I took a leap of faith by attending the Republican National Convention. I shared my experience. Often times, I believe we create a divide between good and well-intentioned people. From our side of the divide, we think the others are radical and uninformed. Perhaps, neither of us is right.

The answer lies not in who is more wrong, but rather what we can learn and what we will do when we try to understand what it feels like on the other side. You’ve felt what it’s like over here on this side, so tell me … What will you do next?

All images taken by author.

Jenna CaldwellComment