What My Racist Childhood Teaches about Trumpism

James Finn
Nov 6, 2020 · 8 min read
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Images licensed from Adobe Stock

Shocked by my nation’s failure to roundly reject Trumpism, I have spent the last three days agonizing, alternating between despair and thoughtfulness. My family come from Ohio, a state that embraced Trump in the elections. I have spent much of the last few days remembering my Ohio childhood, trying to dig lessons out.

When I was a little kid, before I knew I was gay, my dad bought a nice little house in a nice little town for his nice little family. We had three bedrooms and a huge backyard with a treehouse. I could run from our yard straight into a city park where kids tossed baseballs, footballs, and frisbees.

I didn’t know I was gay, and I didn’t know all the kids in the park were white for a reason, but how I loved that house! I got to take over the attic for my bedroom, so I strung a copper-wire antenna from my shortwave radio out the window all the way to my treehouse.

I sat at that window late at night when I was supposed to be sleeping, dialing in crackling voices from all over the world, promising myself I’d learn those languages one day, that I’d travel to those far lands one day.

I kissed a girl once in the private shadows of a gnarled oak beside the park, because she wanted me too. Months later I kissed a boy under the same tree, because I wanted to.

Dad was a young steel worker with an undistinguished high school education. He bought that cozy house because he was a hard worker with natural leadership skills. His bosses made him a shift foreman and gave him a raise to 25,000 dollars a year, exactly how much our little house cost.

One day, Dad brought a friend’s son home to play with my little brother. I remember his name was Mario and he had kinky hair and dark brown skin. I asked my mom why people with brown skin were called black. She told me to eat my snack and do my homework.

I asked my dad why we never saw kids like Mario in our park or school. He told me “negroes” had their own part of town to live in. Then he drove me through that part of town, telling me some his work friends lived there.

“But, Dad,” I said. “Those houses are not like our house.”

They weren’t. They needed paint. They needed repair. Some of them needed glass instead of newspaper in window frames. The kids I saw running around needed new clothes and shoes.

“Dad, this isn’t right, is it?” I said. “You’re showing me this because it isn’t right?”

He nodded, face tight and lips pursed hard.

“Is this where Mario lives?”

“Yes.”

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Photo by James Steidl/Adobe Stock

I didn’t know my dad was struggling with ideas about racism. I didn’t know he was struggling with spiritual ideas either, but a few months after that car ride, he quit his job at the steel plant and became the youth pastor at our Baptist church. We went every Sunday and Wednesday, and I liked it a lot.

I got to learn about a family of beavers in Sunday school, and we had bonfires and played volleyball after church. The church moms made delicious cakes and cookies, and everybody was so nice I thought church was the best place ever.

Like a preview of heaven.

Mario and my little brother became pretty good friends. Mario’s dad came over sometimes and told stories about the steel plant that made my dad laugh and laugh. I could tell he missed it.

“Dad?” my brother asked one Saturday night. “Can Mario sleep over?”

I saw my dad nod and start to say yes, then a shadow darkened his face. “No, maybe some other night. We have church in the morning.”

“Mario can come.” I said, confused. “Church is fun!”

My brother begged. “And we can all sleep in the treehouse tonight. Please?”

Dad snapped out a sharp, “I said no!”

When my brother’s chin started to quiver, Dad added, “You guys can sleep in the treehouse with Mario next Friday, OK?”

That was enough for my brother, but it wasn’t enough for me. I needed to know why Dad was mad. I had to know what was wrong. When Mario and his dad got ready to go home, we all went out to say goodbye. After their car pulled away, I grabbed Dad’s hand and held him back while the rest of the family went back inside our snug little house.

He looked at me and waited for my question.

“Mario can’t go to church with us for the same reason he can’t live near us, huh?”

“Yes.”

“That isn’t right. That’s why you got mad, huh?”

He squeezed my hand and walked with me to the door without saying a word.

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1970 rock concert in Chicago explodes in racial tension

I don’t know if it happened the very next day or soon after, but one Sunday morning our little family sat down in church, and the preacher told us exactly why Mario had to live where he lived and why he couldn’t come to our bonfires and eat the church moms’ cake.

“Friends,” the preacher intoned from the pulpit, “God’s love has limits. We must read His Word, understand His plan, and bow to His will. Good Christians are obedient.”

I nodded my head, glancing up at my mother, who was cradling my hand in hers, her thumb randomly caressing my skin.

The pastor took a deep breath. “Our nation is embroiled in strife. We live in trying times. Satan and his forces march, seeking what they can devour. As God’s children, we must rise up and say no to the forces of evil.”

My soul stirred. Yes!

“We must fight the evil of racial integration. God created the races of the Earth, Red and Yellow, Black and White. He loves us all, but His Holy Word tells us the races are meant to live each to their own kind.”

My dad took us home and explained why the preacher was wrong. He spoke in even tones, but I could see anger wrinkle up his eyes.

We moved out of that snug little house not long after. My dad left that church and became a pastor of his own church hundreds of miles away, where he insisted Black children join us in Sunday school if they wanted to.

That didn’t go well.

We never lived in Ohio again, but Mario probably still does. Much of my extended family still do. I’ve driven by that little house in recent years. The oak tree is still there, and so is the big park filled with children. A few of them are Black now, but only a few.

Mario’s old neighborhood is still run down and still overwhelmingly Black.

I know my Ohio family mostly voted for Donald Trump. So did two-thirds of the rest of the town according to the local newspaper. Which is funny. When I was a little kid in that snug house, everybody was a Democrat. All the steelworkers, autoworkers and oil refinery employees voted for politicians who supported labor unions, decent working conditions, and good pay.

All that’s long dead.

Good pay? My dad never worked more than a forty-hour week at the steel plant, and he had enough money to buy a house before he was 25. Most of my family still working in those Ohio factories need two parents working overtime to eke out a living.

A house that costs the same as an annual salary? Fantasy!

Unions? They all got busted up after Reagan.

My Ohio cousins are tired and poor and struggling, even the ones with “good” jobs. But my family remember how things used to be. They remember when life was much better.

I KNOW why they voted for Trump. He told them he was going to bring those days back. He was going to make their LIVES great again as he made America great again.

He conned them.

Some of them bought his racist garbage, but most of them didn’t. They mostly closed their eyes, swallowed hard, and tried to forget about Mario’s neighborhood. They have kids to feed and put through school, and they don’t have the luxury of worrying about other people’s kids.

My dad died almost three months ago.

He hated Trump, because (and only because) of the racism and xenophobia. He just couldn’t swallow hard enough. Me? Being gay shocked me out of possible complacency. Kissing that boy under that oak tree sent me on a path toward progressive politics and social justice. Learning languages and traveling the world opened my eyes.

But Dad and I are outliers in the family.

Too many of the rest of my natal clan remember that cozy little house with three bedrooms and a great big backyard with a treehouse. They want it back, and they’ll give their vote to any politician who promises it. No matter how hard they have to swallow.

They’re waiting for a leader to come along with REAL promises and REAL solutions. How long will they have to wait? How long will we as a nation allow politicians to sell racist garbage in a Faustian bargain for power?

Where is that leader from the left with the power and magnetism to tell the truth and restore real economic justice to the United States?

Is she anywhere to be found?

I voted for Biden and Harris this year out of obligation, but my heart wasn’t in it. They’re agents of the status quo. They can’t restore anything — or at least their words show no appetite for the courage that would require.

If we Americans don’t do something fast, we’ll find another Trump breathing down our necks soon enough, more than happy to exploit working people’s pain, to fan hatred in return for power.

James Finn is a former Air Force intelligence analyst, long-time LGBTQ activist, an alumnus of Queer Nation and Act Up NY, an essayist occasionally published in queer news outlets, and an “agented” novelist. Send questions, comments, and story ideas to jamesfinnwrites@gmail.com.

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James Finn

Written by

Writer. Runner. Marine. Airman. Former LGBTQ and HIV activist. Former ActUpNY and Queer Nation. Polyglot. Middle-aged, uppity faggot. jamesfinnwrites@gmail.com

Prism & Pen

Amplifying LGBTQ voices through the art of storytelling

James Finn

Written by

Writer. Runner. Marine. Airman. Former LGBTQ and HIV activist. Former ActUpNY and Queer Nation. Polyglot. Middle-aged, uppity faggot. jamesfinnwrites@gmail.com

Prism & Pen

Amplifying LGBTQ voices through the art of storytelling

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