What Happens When the President of the United States Says Your Family Comes From a Shithole
You might be surprised.
It happens when you’re sitting in the kitchen.
The news updates flicker across your phone’s screen in relatively rapid succession. CNN, CBS, the Washington Post, the New York Times. You ignore them, trying to finish up an episode of Marvel’s Runaways while keeping an eye on the pot of rice you’ve got cooking across the room. Whatever it is, it can wait. But they keep coming, a glimmer of light flashing in and out of the corner of your eye. Captive to your own curiosity, you pause the episode, turn down the stove, and pick up your phone.
Maybe someone famous died, you think. Maybe there was a natural disaster. Maybe there was a terrorist attack, or a mass shooting — the rhetorical difference, of course, being the skin color of the killer.
Or maybe it’s just some shit that Trump sai —
A-yup. There it is.
You read the headlines in disbelief, and then swipe through to the stories, foolishly thinking for a millisecond that surely the press is jumping the gun. That the President of the United States, even this President of the United States, wouldn’t be so foolish as to say such a thing in front of other people with properly functioning ears. You don’t put much stock in the antagonistic notion of the #FAKENEWSMEDIA as peddled by the Breitbart commentariat and Kekistani twitterati, but in a news cycle when virtually every story from Fire and Fury is being treated as the gospel truth, you suspect that you should have saved a grain of salt from your rice so you could read this story through better and more critical eyes now.
But no, there it is. There it all is, black and white, clear as crystal, hammered home in digital ink surely to be replicated by its physical brethren in the print editions come the morning. Embroiled in a legislative thicket along with influential senators from both parties, the President of the United States, a seventy-year-old man with the attention span of a seven-year-old grew fed up and asked, reportedly in reference to Haiti, El Salvador, and unnamed countries in Africa:
“Why do we want all these people from shithole countries coming here?”
The emotions hit you quickly.
Of course, there’s the surprise: the surprise you keep haughtily denying you feel each time Trump opens his… well, in the past you very well might have said shithole, but let’s call it a mouth for now; it’s bad form to plagiarize a man who doesn’t like to read and seems scarcely capable of writing. All the same, you are surprised, and you are in turn surprised at the surprise. After all, this is a man who has made contempt commonplace, who has turned malice into mundanity. After all the lines that this habitual line-stepper has lumbered across, after mocking women as being too ugly to rape or encouraging police officers to brutalize suspects or musing about ways to “get rid of” Muslims or blaming the death of a Navy SEAL on the generals under his command, the idea that there is still anything that can surprise you from such a man is laughable. Yet there it is.
Then, there is a glimmer of sadness. Piercing the veil of stunned shock for a moment, you finish reading the story and see that aside from the inflammatory lead-in, the White House has thrown the breaks on any progress towards a reconciliation on immigration, that countless people as American as anyone are still trapped in legal limbo, a political football to be kicked around in perpetuity as Washington continues its war of words and walls. The sadness is compounded when you remember the millions who happily parrot this President’s words, and as someone whose dedicated his life to their power, you dread the effect those words will have when laid upon those children who’ve never known a home other than this one and will be made to feel as less than American, less than human, because of them.
You’re not so old that you can’t remember what that feels like.
And then the messages come in from your friends. You’ve nuked your primary social media outlet for the time being, so most of your casual relationships have understandably wilted in the interim. But the people closest to you reach out through other channels, knowing that you will have seen the news and will have a strong reaction to it, and wanting to extend their concern and offer their support. They know that you of all people, a godless liberal political junkie who oscillates between regarding the President of the United States and his legionnaires of doom with cold contempt and seething antipathy, who obnoxiously wears his Haitian heritage on his sleeve as loudly as he does his love for orange juice, fire-type Pokémon, and Chicago Bulls basketball, will be boiling.
And they’re not wrong. There is the anger, an emotion so familiar to you that your legal initials spell out one of its synonyms, an emotion you can call to mind as easily as a falconer might summon a trained bird of prey. You’ve felt that anger on the same issue before, when a self-professed man of God blamed an earthquake on Haitians’ pact with the devil, or when the former Speaker of the House and a supposed scholar of history told your college American Civilization class that Haitians lack a culture with the “propensity to prosperity.” These twelve new words, uttered by a man who likely still deludes himself that he “has the best,” don’t push your buttons so much as they crush them with a lexical sledgehammer.
But what you don’t tell them, what you are slowly realizing to even your own surprise, is that the anger doesn’t last. The outrage and offense fade away, and so do the surprise and the sadness. In the span of a few short minutes, this inherently awful statement uttered by the ostensible most powerful man in the world doesn’t feel so awful anymore.
It feels really good.
Because now you know how the nasty women and the bad hombres felt after the last debate of the 2016 election. Hell, now you even know how the deplorables felt, kind of. Now you know how it feels to have the trump card to trump all trump cards (puns fully intended and not apologized for) when well-meaning liberals and conservatives alike try to reassure you, or perhaps themselves, that the Trump train wasn’t fueled primarily by racism and gaudy hair products. Now you know how it feels to have yet another aspect of your identity denigrated by the “least racist person” that any of us will ever meet. Now you know how it feels to have delayed confirmation that one last storyline from the 2016 election, that Donald Trump would be the American champion of the Haitian people that Bill and Hillary Clinton failed to be, was yet another lie.
Now you know, with all due respect to eden ahbez and Nat King Cole, that the greatest thing you’ll ever learn is to hate and be hated in return, and to know what underpins that hatred.
And it feels good.
You’ll remember the quiet and not-so-quiet contributions of Haitian-Americans throughout the shared history of both countries. Artists and activists, athletes and authors, scientists and soldiers, businessmen and politicians — even some belonging to the president’s own party, no less. You’ll remember, for neither the first nor the last time, that the city you will always call home was founded by a Haitian. You’ll remember Haiti, a former slave colony, wasn’t granted freedom thanks to the long-delayed beneficence of leaders who needed decades to realize that slavery was wrong. You’ll remember that Haiti took freedom for itself, in what was and is the only successful slave revolt leading to an independent state in the history of the world. And you’ll remember that despite economically crippling treaties enforced by governments swearing by the importance of freedom (or liberté) yet fearing the precedent of independent slaves, decades of external intervention, natural disasters, dictatorships and corruption, plagues and extreme poverty, Haiti and Haitians are still here.
And it feels good.
You’ll remember your Haitian family, and all the work that they’ve done to build a life for themselves and their children in a new and sometimes unfriendly country for the past forty-odd years. You’ll remember that unlike a president who inherited millions, they actually built a successful life more or less from scratch. You’ll remember the fixture that your Haitian mother has become within her religious and vocational communities, and you’ll remember the voracious appetite for American politics you inherited from the Haitian father who has yet to become an American citizen, yet still knows more about the history and laws of his adopted homeland in his pinkie than the president does in his entire body. You’ll also note with some irony that it was less than forty-eight ago that your father, ever the cerebral moderate and ever the bigger man, was gently admonishing you to be more measured in your criticism of the president and his party, to not let personal antipathies get in the way of objective realities. You’ll remember all that it means to be a creation of these two people.
And it feels good.
You remember your siblings and cousins, several of whom are starting their own families, and the web of support that crisscrosses Chicago and New York and Boston and New London and Miami and Houston and San Francisco and Montreal and Paris and Port-au-Prince tying them all together. You’ll remember, despite the intense annoyance that they may cause you at times, the love and the loyalty and the generosity and the support and the kindness and the sacrifice that suffuses every thread in the tapestry of that family, and realize that the criticisms of a man who doesn’t understand any of those things, who probably can’t even locate Haiti on a map, are but whispers and wind. You’ll remember the rush of unfiltered joy that surges through your veins every time you meet another Haitian-American in the wild, and the unstated reassurance you give each other that you’re both aware of your heritage and the imperative driving you to make both of your homelands proud.
And it feels good.
It feels really good.
“Shithole,” he said.
It’s not often that you get to be on the forefront of reclaiming a pejorative: you so envied your female and Latinx friends for the chance to do so two years ago. But as a fictitious president once said, hurling the label “shithole” at your feet like it’s something to be ashamed of won’t work. Because you’ll pick that shit up and pin to your chest like a badge of honor.
You like the sound of it. You think you’ll update your introductory header in Medium and the Twitter profile you never use to reflect the change after you finish and publish the post. Maybe see if you can’t get a hashtag going for your fellow Shitholes, assuming that already haven’t. Not for the first time, you wonder what it says about you that once you get started on a piece, you don’t stop until you’ve seen it through to the end, even neglecting more objectively important tasks at hand.
You shrug. You’ll work on it.
Because even at your shittiest, even at your lowest and weakest and darkest and most vindictive, you know that greatness is something that lies ahead and in being better, not in running to the worst of the past. Something to be worked for, not something to be given. Something achieved by holding yourself accountable for your own failings, not by making excuses and denying that they ever happened.
You’re a Shithole-American.
And you’re damn proud of it.
Because you know that be it in seven years, three years, or by the act of some merciful God(dess) sooner, the stench of burger grease and sweaty golf pants will fade from the air of America one day.
But Shitholes? No, sir. You know that the smell of Shitholes lingers. You know in your shitty heart that no matter what anyone says, you and your fellow Shitholes aren’t going anywhere.
And like a good Shithole-American, you get back to cooking your rice.