My college decision was a compromise of impulses. These were my most important criteria: not close to home (so I would grow more and have more independence); located in or in immediate proximity of a large city (where there’d be a decent amount of Black people who existed who were not me); top-notch academics (since my mind deserved a challenge and I’m a competitive person deep down); prestige (translation: respect). My father didn’t really care what I did, but not in a lazy way we expect of men—he just trusted I was already thinking of the right things, as he’d always done. My mother was all about practicality: “make sure you can go out there and get a job when you graduate.”
What do you want to be when you grow up? That’s such a White-ass question, if we’re being honest.
She had a point, a point that would be repeated hundreds of thousands of times by the time I actually graduated, though I understood it even as a high school senior, and I understood it years before, in fact. I was always a practical kid, I’m a practical adult now, and I hate that about me. Being practical is a way to survive, but it’s probably no way to live.
In any event, I ended up enrolling at Wharton where so many of the big financiers went (the ones who tanked the economy back in 2008). I don’t regret it, really; I’m still here after all. I have a job that provides for a fairly comfortable life. A lot of folks like me can’t say that. A lot of folks like me can’t say anything anymore.
* * *
A list of people to hold the most powerful job in the world, April 2008:
- George Washington (White guy, slave owner)
- John Adams (White guy)
- Thomas Jefferson (White guy, slave owner, Black baby mama)
- James Madison (White guy, slave owner)
- James Monroe (White guy, slave owner, Liberia dude)
- John Quincy Adams (White guy)
- Andrew Jackson (White guy, slave owner, slave trader)
- Martin Van Buren (White guy, slave owner)
- William Henry Harrison (White guy, slave owner)
- John Tyler (White guy, slave owner)
- James K. Polk (White guy, slave owner)
- Zachary Taylor (White guy, slave owner)
- Millard Fillmore (White guy)
- Franklin Pierce (White guy)
- James Buchanan (White guy)
- Abraham Lincoln (White guy, Illinois, Civil War, Emancipation, shot)
- Andrew Johnson (White guy, slave owner)
- Ulysses S. Grant (White guy, slave owner)
- Rutherford B. Hayes (White guy)
- James A. Garfield (White guy, shot)
- Chester A. Arthur (White guy)
- Grover Cleveland (White guy)
- Benjamin Harrison (White guy)
- Grover Cleveland (wait, again?)
- William McKinley (White guy, shot)
- Theodore Roosevelt (White guy)
- William Howard Taft (White guy)
- Woodrow Wilson (White guy, super-duper racist)
- Warren G. Harding (White guy)
- Calvin Coolidge (White guy)
- Herbert Hoover (White guy)
- Franklin D. Roosevelt (White guy, Depression, WWII)
- Harry S. Truman (White guy)
- Dwight D. Eisenhower (White guy)
- John F. Kennedy (Irish Catholic White guy, shot)
- Lyndon B. Johnson (White guy, Vietnam, Civil Rights)
- Richard Nixon (White guy, crook)
- Gerald Ford (White guy)
- Jimmy Carter (White guy, Mr. Nice Guy)
- Ronald Reagan (White guy…)
- George H.W. Bush (White guy)
- Bill Clinton (White guy. First Black President?)
- George W. Bush (White guy)
* * *
What do you want to be when you grow up?
That’s such a White-ass question, if we’re being honest.
* * *
In business school, I gravitated away from more quantitative subjects like finance and accounting, and toward topics like management and marketing. It wasn’t a loathing of math that steered me in this direction, but an appreciation for the more human elements of things. This had always been true for me.
I hear quite a few side conversations analyzing what went wrong, everything from African American voters not turning out to James Comey’s memo to deeply rooted sexism and misogyny, but none of this is indicative of something “going wrong.” No, this is how things work around here.
Kindergarten through twelfth grade, my favorite subject in school was history: I loved ancient history, loved European history, loved world history. Above all else, though, I loved American history, how it read like a fairy tale, how I’d snicker to myself at just about everything the teacher would say. See, I knew a whole lot of Black historians, enough to understand the jokes that flew over other kids’ heads (first Thanksgiving, ha!), though they weren’t recognized as such by anybody in academia. They had no doctorates. They had no master’s degrees. They had no college at all, actually. But their eyes had seen it all. Their eyes had seen all they could handle. My parents, my grandparents—they never wanted that for me. Instead, they wanted me to be secure. Physically secure. Financially secure.
The day after Trayvon Martin went out for Skittles and the day after Michael Brown was left laying in the street for hours and the day after Tamir Rice held a toy gun for the last time and the day after Walter Scott was left lying in the dirt and the day after Sandra Bland got pulled over and the day after Clementa Pinckney oversaw his last Bible study and the day after Eric Garner’s daughter was crying on the news and the day after Jordan Davis didn’t turn down the music fast enough and the day after Dajerria Becton went to the pool party and the day after Korryn Gaines last saw her child and the day after Freddie Gray was snapped in half and the day after they lit up Laquan McDonald and the day after Philando Castile served students lunch for the last time, I went to work.
And the day after.
And the day after.
And the day after.
And because I did, I got paid.
* * *
The day after Donald Trump was elected President of the United States, I went to work as if nothing had happened. And it hadn’t, at least in the sense that what occurred was not out of the ordinary or impossible to have predicted, but perspective is a funny thing. A lot of folks around the office were visibly concerned, hanging their heads solemnly, talking with a decided lack of energy that stood in sharp contrast to what they demonstrated less than twenty-four hours before when so many felt they would be voting for the first woman to ever hold the presidency in this nation’s history. I hear quite a few side conversations analyzing what went wrong, everything from African American voters not turning out in high enough numbers to James Comey’s memo to deeply rooted sexism and misogyny, but none of this is indicative of something “going wrong.” No, this is how things work around here. Around America, all areas thereof. Where have these people been? Why are they crying today if I never have? What do they have to lose except something I’ll never attain to begin with? Why can’t they just put on a good face about this?
* * *
I have a vivid memory of when I’d learned a cousin of mine had been killed. I had school, and my mother was dropping me off at my granny’s house, where the bus would come collect me, before she headed to work. The room was dim with only a single strand of light that fell through the gap between the curtains providing any sort of warmth. My granny was sitting down in that green, patterned chair pressed up against the wall on the left side of the room, my mom standing just past the doorway and me, floating in the vicinity like a thought bubble ultimately left unfilled. There was nothing to be said, but there were things to be done by each of us. And we did them. Even as a child, I had a job to do.
* * *
“Also among the slightly odd findings of the poll, 18% of respondents who felt that Mr. Trump was not qualified to be president nonetheless voted for him, as did 20% of those who felt he did not have the necessary temperament.”
* * *
From the very beginning, what they always expressed to my parents was how nice and well mannered I am. Teachers. Neighbors. Complete strangers.
Cortney Lamar Charleston is the author of Telepathologies, selected by D.A. Powell for the 2016 Saturnalia Books Poetry Prize. He was awarded a 2017 Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation and he has also received fellowships from Cave Canem, The Conversation Literary Festival, and the New Jersey State Council on the Arts. His poems have appeared in POETRY, The American Poetry Review, New England Review, AGNI, TriQuarterly, and elsewhere. He serves as a poetry editor at The Rumpus.