• Notes on the Interregnum

    Sidik Fofana

    Spring 2021

    I don’t like to write about politics. I don’t like to write about politics because I don’t care about politics. I do care, but not that much. Generally, I see people get angry and I think, Why can’t I get that angry?

    I pretend sometimes. I pretend because I’m a teacher and a writer and that means I’m supposed to be smart. Smart people are supposed to care about politics. But my confession is I’m oblivious. I didn’t know what Mike Pence looked like until the vice presidential debate. I didn’t know the New York governor’s voice until I heard him talking about school closures. I don’t know what Dick Cheney looks like. I know who Elizabeth Warren is, but not when I should have, and still her face is blurry to me. I know who Bernie Sanders is, but not when I should have. The same for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. During the primaries, my acquaintances drop the names of candidates and often I pray they don’t ask my opinion. Other times, I am defiant in my mind. I tell myself, If they ask me about so-and-so, I will simply say, “Who is that?”

    White people—the ones who didn’t vote for him—are angry about Trump. Sometimes, it’s scary to watch. I’m angry, but not that angry. The Black people I know are angry too, but in general not as angry as the whites. The Blacks are angry. Don’t misconstrue that. They are marching. They are on the bullhorn. But at my job, white people are more likely to denounce Trump than Black people are. Why is this? I’ve thought about it a lot. The world is going to shreds. Why am I not riled up? I’ve thought and thought about it and could only come up with one reason: because I’m Black.

    White people, generally, get to live in a world they created. Black people, generally, live in a world created for them. A white person’s anger is, “This is not the world I want to live in.” A Black person’s anger is, “Alas, this is one more fucked-up reality I have to face.” They’re two different sentiments. A Black person is angry, but she is also resigned because she has spent all her life living in a space she has had no input in shaping.

    I’m from Boston. I’m from a neighborhood called Roxbury. It’s the same neighborhood Malcolm X lived in. It’s the same neighborhood Bobby Brown is from, and NBA point guard Shabazz Napier. I’m proud of where I’m from, but it can be a very rough place. The year before I started middle school, a boy was shot because he wouldn’t give up his sneakers. When people think of Boston, they think of a milky-white city, but remember that there are always two Americas. My parents came to Boston in 1976 from West Africa, and they could only afford to live in one of three neighborhoods: Mattapan, Dorchester, or Roxbury. They happen to be the Blackest and the poorest. The three-family house I grew up in wasn’t even a house before we moved in. Well, it was a house, but it was abandoned and gutted out. The mayor had this program that if you could scrape together five hundred dollars for a down payment, you could petition the city to fix the house up for you since nobody else wanted it. That’s what my family did. When a white person moves to Massachusetts, they can move to Cambridge, to Brookline, to Scituate, to Needham, anywhere they want. A Black person is constricted mostly to one of these three neighborhoods. It is not redlining but something more invisible and more insidious. To this day, when I meet a white person from Boston, it is almost always an awkward conversation. I ask them which part and they say Wellesley or Natick or Chestnut Hill. They ask me where I’m from, and I have to pretend it could be anywhere in the state when in reality it’s a place they could guess in three tries.

    This is my long-winded way of saying Black people are used to dealing with dealt cards. They aren’t usually the card dealers. In the times of slavery, enslaved people have had to deal with the situation into which they were thrust. In the Jim Crow. In the urban ghettos. This is my long-winded way of saying I care about the 2020 election, but I don’t care. It sounds insensitive given that many have died from coronavirus. Many lives have been upended. Derek Chauvin stepped on a Black man’s neck for eight minutes.

    The closest someone has gotten to expressing how I feel is Dave Chappelle. He was on an SNL skit right after the 2016 election. In the skit, a bunch of white people are watching the election and giving their insights on it as it unfolds. They say things like, “This is gonna be an historic night” and “There might never be another Republican president in this country” and even as Hilary is losing, “All she has to do is come back and win Wisconsin.” Each time Dave Chappelle would turn to the camera and say, “Really?” and “Word?” It was only fitting that Chris Rock, another Black man, stops by, and they share the same thoughts.

    I was in the audience for a Roxane Gay reading at the Greene Space in New York City. Someone asked her about Trump’s presidency, and she said something along the lines of, We’ve had to deal with worse. That was exactly how I felt. A young white girl asked her about her comment. She said, “Are you concerned that your question might discourage people from being active in fighting against the ideals of this presidency?” Roxane gave the woman a polite answer. She talked about how America has made it through slavery and other dark periods. She put the emphasis on America’s resiliency. But it was what she said last that made her my hero. After all that she said, “If you interpret what I said as you should be apathetic, then my comment was not for you.”

    It sounds insensitive, but electing a president doesn’t change much for Black people. I love me some Obama. He was always my president even during Trump. I admire the man he is. I admire our nation for electing a Black president. But having a Black president did not save Trayvon’s life. Having a Black president did not save Sandra’s life. Having a Black president did not save Mike Brown’s life. And guess what? Black people will die on Biden and Harris’s watch. It is certainly not their fault, but the reality is that for marginalized people, politics doesn’t change much. The only reason it’s a big deal now is the driver of this particular car is steering off the road. In other words, the regular road is racism and rule by the one percent, and this president is leading many of us to death and destruction.

    Man, white people are irate. They voice it all the time. Sometimes I think they are performing for me. They are saying, “Look, I’m a liberal. I’m an ally. I’m a friend.” They mean well, and that’s why I nod and I smile and I agree. I nod and I smile and I agree because I’m always conscious that I’m playing a game in a world created for me. And, that in this game the truth will not help me.

    The truth is we all participate in the racism and the classism of this country. We condemn big business, but we buy Amazon. We condemn racism, yet we live mostly segregated lives. This includes me. As a teacher, I’m with the children of working families every day, some of them the poorest of the poor, yet my life compared to theirs is fundamentally different. I live in the hood, but I live in a house I own. I have pennies, but they stack regularly, and the more they stack, the further away I am from the poverty I spent my whole life identifying with. If someone told me what I had was too much, I would be hesitant to give any of it away. If I woke up with double my money, I would hesitate. If I woke up with a million dollars, I would hesitate. Although I would say twenty million is where I would cap it off, I have a strong feeling that if it ever got there, I would not magically feel different. In this, I understand greed because I am greedy. Even in writing this, I am capitalizing on a personal opportunity.

    If you’re white, may I ask where your children go to school? May I ask where you live? Do you live in a part of town with other white people? Would you let your children go to a school with all Black children? How many Black people would it take infiltrating your own schools and churches before you got an uncomfortable feeling? Would you give up your job to a person of color who is more qualified? Would you give up your house? It’s okay to say no.

    White people like to think of racism like drawing a circle. They say, “I don’t draw circles. I don’t say the n-word. I’m nice to people of color.” But racism is not actively drawing circles. Racism is the circle we all draw by standing exactly where we stand.

    I always promised myself I wouldn’t write about politics. That if anyone asked me about Trump and Biden 2020, I would demur. My short stories may seem political, but they aren’t.

    I am part of this too. I yearn for acceptance from the whites. In many ways, I’ve spent my whole life competing to be this lucky negro. The game is hard as hell, but I know if I get there, the rewards may be plentiful because all the others who look like me will be too busy succumbing to a world they did not create.

    But now I’m here writing this essay and, for some reason, I don’t feel too good. I feel like I’m lying. I feel like I’m giving you the false notion that things are getting better because I’m in these pages. The fact that I’m here is supposed to represent progress, but I know it does not. I’m in the pages, but I don’t own the press that prints the pages. I don’t own the magazine. I don’t own the university that prints the magazine. I’m in cahoots with the whites. I am the face of political correctness. I am what allows them to keep control.

    I realize I may be betraying the very whites whose generosity allows me to be here, so I also have that hanging over my head.

    In 2018, I received a fellowship from the Center for Fiction. It awarded nine promising writers a little cash and access to agents and editors. I was excited about this fellowship because I felt it would open doors for my writing. My favorite part of the fellowship was the monthly dinners where I got to meet up with the other fellows. There was one particular woman named Kimarlee that I bonded with. Like me, she was a teacher. For the same number of years. Both of us taught in Brooklyn public schools. Both of us are Brown. Her parents were from Cambodia. “You have my life,” we’d say to each other jokingly. We’d discuss the challenges of teaching and writing. She was effusive when I sold my book. I always looked forward to seeing her. Then she died.

    She died of COVID the very week the mayor got on TV and said get ready for a dark week. I cried. I cried for her and I cried for myself. We had the same dreams, and now she was no longer here. It made me aware of the ephemerality of everything. I felt the future was only an illusion left up to an unnamed mercy. Then I had a thought: Kimarlee would still be alive if someone else were president.

    It was the first time I remember feeling that. That something the president did or did not do directly affected me. The feeling only intensified. I realized that the spoken command of a powerful man can decide whether or not I go to work. Whether my wife gets unemployment and how much it will be.

    That’s the thing. Even when you distance yourself from politics, it encroaches on you. It forces you to reckon with it one way or the other. It knocks hard on your forehead. Especially if you’re Black. Whether it’s health care, education, immigration, abortion; whether it’s the cops coming directly into your neighborhood.

    About Derek Chauvin stepping on George Floyd’s neck.

    I saw a link to the video and I remember thinking a decent person wouldn’t click on this. I clicked on it anyway. It was eerie how quiet it was. Bystanders were yelling of course, but the majority is Derek Chauvin stepping on George Floyd’s neck. It was scary how nonchalantly and deliberately he did it. It felt like he was stepping on Trayvon’s neck, and Eric Garner’s, and making sure they were dead too. I watched and I thought, Really, in a pandemic? Usually when we collectively suffer something, the tragedy brings us together. I thought this was going to happen with the coronavirus. I thought we’d get together for a few months and help keep each other alive. I was mistaken.

    I considered making art about it, but I was too broken. I thought making art about it would be disrespectful. Like calling attention that didn’t need my help. I heard Lil Baby’s “The Bigger Picture” and it made me sad:

    Trade my 4 x 4 for a G63, ain’t no more free Lil Steve
    I gave ’em chance and chance and chance again
    I even done told them please
    I find it crazy the police’ll shoot you and know that you dead
    But still tell you to freeze
    Fucked up, I seen what I seen
    I guess that mean hold him down if he say he can’t breathe

    Hearing the “The Bigger Picture” made me feel like, Wow this is real. This is not what Lil Baby usually raps about.

    Did Kimarlee’s death and George Floyd’s death make me curious about the election? Did it make me invested? Make me feel there was something at stake that I could understand? That maybe who the president is does matter, and it’s a matter of life and death? Did it make me get articles on Black Lives Matter in my feed and click on them? Tune into the news and MSNBC? Know the major issues of the day and the major political players? Finally understand that though I did not create this mess, it was in my best interest to do what I could to change it? Yes and no.

    I watched the presidential debates and vice presidential debates, but if I’m being honest, I didn’t watch them for politics. I watched them for entertainment. I just wanted to see two people arguing. That they were going to argue about things that were relevant was just a bonus. I did pay special attention to what they said. I wanted to hear what they would say about handling COVID. I wanted to see if the Republicans were going to deny police brutality. I wanted to see if someone would lose their cool or call someone a name. I watched the whole first presidential debate and the only thing that stuck in my mind is that they wouldn’t let each other talk. I watched the whole vice presidential debate, but the only thing I remember were the moments Kamala Harris sounded especially Black. She said “Debt is when you owe somebody.” Rather than someone. And that a fly landed on Pence’s head.

    I don’t trust any of it. Not this world and not the media. Call me unenlightened. Call me stupid. Call me inconsiderate. I don’t care. I’ve been a public-school teacher since 2007, and every year the system gets worse and worse. I teach certified geniuses and geniuses of effort. How would you feel if you taught so many human beings who you saw into adulthood and not one went to Harvard, not one of them became the so-called one percent—if you saw many go straight back into the abject poverty they came from, if during class you saw a kid diligently writing out an essay for you, and you got the sinking notion that this student wouldn’t be any better off than the student next to her who has her head down and has fallen asleep? Would you think, Time to elect Joe Biden? No. You’d be cynical too. You’d damn this created world you had to live in. You wouldn’t pay attention to any critter claiming there will be change.

    I voted in the presidential election. (I usually skip the midterms. Yes, I’m that person you blame.) This election I voted early, however, in October. I wanted to vote in person to make sure my vote was counted. I figured Trump was going to make sure my vote got lost if I mailed it. But I also didn’t want to stand in line and get COVID, so I ended up mailing it anyway. I told myself, If New York votes for Trump, then the country was headed for bigger problems than my one vote could solve.

    I did vote for Biden. Not because I think it’ll change anything. I voted for Biden because I felt in danger with Trump. Not that I feel significantly less likely to die of COVID, police, or a white supremacist with Joe Biden. But I do feel that if I were to die at the hands of a cop, Joe Biden would at least tell my mom he was sorry.

    I don’t write about politics because I am a coward. I’m afraid to tell my truth. I’m afraid people won’t understand. I’m afraid it will come off accusatory. I’m afraid I’ll lose opportunities. I’m afraid that I’ll tell a truth that might make people uneasy. I don’t write about politics because this truth is complicated. But if you insist I tell it, I will.

    Sidik Fofana received an MFA in creative writing from NYU and teaches high school in Brooklyn. His collection Stories from the Tenants Downstairs is forthcoming from Scribner in 2021. 

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