On Sunday morning, five of my colleagues and I rented a car and drove out of New York, arriving slightly car-hysterical in Cleveland several hours later. I picked up press credentials that would give me access to the Republican National Convention and went to check out our workspace for the week. En route into the convention centre, I received the most discombobulating heckle of my career so far.
A black man – older than me, but I couldn’t tell you his age – driving a red car with the windows rolled down, was yelling at me. “Black girl with the purple braids! BLACK GIRL WITH THE PURPLE BRAIDS! What are you doing?! REPUBLICAN?!” His arms were working as he half hung out of the window, his frustration with me and my assumed political leaning evident. What are you doing? It’s the query an older family member asks you when you’ve lost your damn mind. They’re not really looking for an answer, I don’t think – it’s more a lament thrown out to the universe. What are you even doing?!
There was no time to yell back that I am British and unable to vote in this American election, that I am a journalist, that I am in Cleveland to write about the convention, that there aren’t enough black journalists being sent to cover things that aren’t seen as “black issues”, that my hair, while purple, is in fact in Senegalese twists and not braids… But I understood his exasperation with what he inferred to be my position. In Cleveland and around the convention, seeing all the black people, and seeing what we were doing, I was thinking about blackness and how it lives, here in this city, all the time. In 2016, in a world that contains Black Lives Matter (and other activist groups), at a time when Donald Trump is the Republican candidate, at this event, in this city, where a 12-year-old black boy, Tamir Rice, was shot and killed by one the city’s police officers, seconds after they pulled up, how could I not?
Earlier in the week, I attended a breakfast event, where I watched Gov. Chris Christie and other Republicans speak. This was the Michigan delegation, the state that contains the cities of Detroit and Flint – one bankrupted, the other poisoning its residents via the water supply – both black as hell. Perhaps they were otherwise occupied and couldn’t attend, but I counted only two other black people in that room. This entire election campaign’s fulcrum has been race, and this week has cemented it. I listened to four people speak, and I didn’t hear a single person say the word “black” all morning. Not even when Christie spoke about the violence in Chicago as a way of chastising President Obama. Instead, he referred to the “slaying of minorities” to a smattering of light applause. It sounded ridiculous then, and writing it down now makes it sound like a terrible made-for-television movie, only slightly better than Chi-Raq. Just.
This may be the whitest vista I have ever gazed upon, and last week I travelled to small-town Alabama.
Walking around the convention centre locations is a walk through Caucasia. This may be the whitest vista I have ever gazed upon, and last week I travelled to small-town Alabama. But we’re here. Earlier, I’d spotted and briefly hung out with two other black journalists. We’d nodded and smiled and hugged, our eyes communicating even more than our usually eloquent mouths could or wanted to. Later, at a party, I bumped into three more black journalists. We repeated the ritual, rolled our eyes. I mentioned how many white people had put their hands in my hair, offering compliments. We laughed, ate fried things and drank, before making promises to meet up before the week was through.
And though there aren’t many of us in the delegate count, we’re visible everywhere else in the city, in many other roles. In the convention centre where we have our workspace I lost my way searching for the exit. “Where you trying to go, baby?” asked an older black woman in uniform, hand on my shoulder. By the time I left her with a map and directions, she had complimented my hair and told me to take care. While seeking directions from two young black men on Euclid Avenue, a man barged into me, earning him my side-eye and a “I was about ready to bust his ass before he apologised” from the man directing me to East 3rd Street. In a cafe, a young black man (part macking, part friendly) jokingly offered to go and get me some avocado at the store since they’d run out and then asked if I would take him back to London with me. In an Uber from Ohio City to Akron, the young black driver asked me if we liked rap back in the UK and told me my accent was “a trip”. So many of the men (and it’s mostly men) selling Trump and GOP merch on the streets are black. The women rolling coolers filled with ice and bottled water to sell for $1 a pop have been mostly black. I’ve made eye contact and smiled with so many black people here this week. And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that so many of them have been workers in the service industry. Cleveland is that kind of town.
In the Q (aka the Quicken Loans Arena), the convention’s mothership, it is stark. The blue GOP T-shirts of the arena’s staff seem to stand out against the various hues of the brown skin wearing them. There they are behind the desks of official GOP merchandise stalls, serving jumbo all-beef hot dogs at the GOP Bistro, directing traffic at the elevators. They’re showing delegates and press where to walk, smiling and nodding all the while, and greeting co-workers they pass with nods, hurried daps. I have superficial conversations with many – what’s it been like, how are you finding it, it’s crazy busy, huh – and then spend about 10 minutes talking to one young man.
He’s 19, with a baby face that makes me miss my little brothers all the way back home in London. He has big, beautiful hair cut into a '90s-lite shape. He tells me he normally works security, but has been moved into “guest services” for convention week. It seems like a heavier-than-normal workload – are they paying staff time and a half, or something? “I wish,” he replies vehemently. But at least the work doesn’t seem too taxing, I reply, before tacking on a leading question-statement: “And the people seem nice.” He agrees that they are. Was he worried they wouldn’t be? A little. “You hear all these things about how they are.” Who? What things? “That they’re ignorant and…” he trails off, inclines his head and doesn’t say it, but I divine “racist” from his expression. I’ve grimaced that way too. At this point, we are standing a few yards away from where, the night before, Rudy Giuliani said the police don’t care if you’re black or white when you call them. He said that. Only a few miles away from where police shot Tamir Rice.
We’re black, and this week, like all the other weeks in Cleveland, we’re here.