Certain Areas, Certain Bodies: Donald Trump and the Rhetoric of Intimidation

Rachel Toliver
Oct 8, 2016 · 6 min read

“You’ve got to go out, and you’ve got to get your friends, and you’ve got to get everybody you know, and you gotta watch the polling booths, because I hear too many stories about Pennsylvania, certain areas.”

– Donald Trump, Manheim PA rally

I type the phrase certain areas into Google Images, except the words I use are voter intimidation. In one picture: The elbows of white men, and at a different angle from the elbows, baseball bats. The men are in two lines. They part on the street like an unhinging jaw. Black ties against white shirts, swinging. They’re engrossed: you can see it in their jowls. These men don’t look like they’re in an actual hurry and I suppose they must be cops — not because of the non-hurry, necessarily, but because of the holstered burnished guns. Their hands, the ones gripping the bats, look like nubs of meat. There’s a sort of prancing in their steps, like they’re walking in a parade — if parades involved dragging curled-up humans, humans with their arms stretching from their bodies, across cobblestones.

*

I am a white woman who grew up in one of these certain areas, otherwise known as Philadelphia. This is to say that growing up I was very convinced I was white, because there was the certain area, and then there was me, and I was convinced I was different from the people in the certain area, which meant I was white. In this certain area I walked my neighbor’s dog, a Scottish Terrier, and the dog’s legs, lashed in its red dog sweater, trembled pitifully in the cold. In this certain area I sat in my parents’ house, on their Merlot-colored couch, and cricked my neck in summer, cricked it against embroidered pillows, reading every one of the Narnia books. In this certain area I lashed roses to lath in the garden, and I yearned for my own cat, and I hid out under a dastardly green yew tree, breathing silent in the thrilling prickle, watching the neighbors’ legs as they flicked past.

*

When I hear certain area I think of my parents’ house: its towels the color of moss, its lace curtains straining light. When I hear certain area I want to speak for that area and in that same moment I hate myself for wanting to speak for that area.

*

How did people — people who lift kids out of car seats, people who pray before passing the salad in its wooden bowl at dinner — become an area?

*

Rhetoric for the end of an empire:

1. Name “big big problem.”

2. Claim “nobody wants to talk about” it.

3. Claim “nobody has the guts to talk about” it.

4. Ignore the fact that you, sir, are not talking about “it.” As in: you’re not saying what “it” is. When you say “big big problem” you are not making any kind of social, political, or socio-political claim.

5. So, in fact, you are the one who does not have the guts to name it. You are the one who’s afraid to give a specific and verifiable name to the cipher — that big big cipher — of which you speak.

6. Racists will recognize the “big big problem”; they will recognize it immediately. The “big big problem” is people of color walking into high-school gyms and church basements and that one Vietnamese restaurant in South Philly — walking in, signing their names in the rolls, and voting. Racists will know this is the “big big problem” because they already know that people of color doing pretty much anything is a “big big problem.” (see: putting hands up and not putting hands up, see: carrying a legal registered gun, see: carrying a toy gun, see: smoking a cigarette, see: walking around in a good neighborhood, see: walking around in a bad neighborhood, see: selling CDs, selling cigarettes, see: driving a car, see: walking around, again again just walking around)

7. If anyone happens to say “Hey, your so-called big big problem seems to be, well, people of color voting” you have options. “I never said that” is your particular favorite. If you’re having an especially good day you could even say something along the lines of “You’re the one talking about racism. I didn’t say anything about race.” Maybe you could talk about how black people like to dance, like to dance in your clubs.

*

When I was young, I had a brief and in retrospect perplexing interest in becoming a Black Panther when I grew up.

*

Synonyms for certain areas: Certain cities, certain urban areas, certain low-income areas, certain places where those other people live. Certain bodies that are black and reside, apparently, in areas — areas such as Philadelphia.

*

Let’s think for a moment about why, in the context of race in America, the words you’ve got to get your friends and you’ve got to get everyone you know might be unsettling, might make people think of those photos — white boys wearing clean button-ups, white girls with bobbed hair, white bodies like a field of flares, all of them together, shoulder to shoulder, gesturing and looking up.

*

I vote in a barber shop, and I wish every American voted in this barber shop. Across 52nd Street there’s Halal Paradise, a soul food restaurant where I order chicken platters, where the cook feeds me free morsels: neat spoonful of potato salad, one single beautiful rib, life-giving collards. Up the street there’s a window in a building where, in the summer, on the way to the El train, I buy mango water ice in a Styrofoam cup. Next to the barber shop is a vacant lot. A house had been there and then one January it caught fire. The firefighters’ water froze into a thousand tiers and volts of ice; people drove in from the suburbs to take pictures of the so-called ice castle, and then after a few weeks the place was knocked entirely down.

The barber shop has regal real-leather seats, ancient porcelain sinks. On the walls, framed photos: the march on Washington, the reflecting pool, the pointillism of those thousand hopeful bodies. And the Million Man March, which I only recognize because the framed poster says Million Man March; I remember being young and hearing people talk about this march, hearing them fear it. There’s a photo of Malcolm X, his majestic jaw clenched, pointing — pointing maybe to this day, when a candidate for president exhorts a mostly white crowd to travel across the state, to watch, to watch certain areas.

I vote beneath a photo of Malcolm X and I remember: it is 2016 and black bodies are not safe in this country, not even on 52nd Street, not even in this stronghold.

*

Home, to me, is a certain area: a certain area where people grow marigolds on porches, where children cling to stuffed animals and teenagers complain about their parents’ curfews. A certain area where people do all these things, as people across all of America do. Why do I even have to make this point? That bodies in these certain areas do the things that other humans do?

A command is issued in Manheim PA. It’s issued again in Novi, a suburb of Detroit. The command is go there. The command is watch. The command is check out areas. I am scared but I am a 37-year-old white woman, tired and hunched under her backpack, and I know that, if anyone shows up to watch, they probably won’t be watching me.

I grew up on a street made from ancient yellow bricks. I live near 52nd Street, a wide and thriving thoroughfare: appliance stores, Caribbean markets, vendors selling socks and cell-phone chargers. You’ve got to get your friends and you’ve got to get everyone you know. I fear these tables overturned, gold hoop earrings and oranges spilling in the street. I fear white men in polished shoes, shoes that they’d wear for a special occasion, and I fear the watching that isn’t really watching.

Go and vote and then go check out certain areas.

Folks, this is your return. This, here, is your call back to a past America: an upswing, a jab, a body dragged. The steady ever-present ever-tromping beat of violence.

Rachel Toliver

Written by

Thinking about cities, cats, public and domestic spaces. New Republic/ Brevity/ TriQuarterly/ American Literary Review. https://www.racheltoliver.com