A breakdown in Trump Country
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Seeing the American flag, especially a week before Independence Day, the 4th of July, is supposed to open the senses to memories of hot dogs roasting over hot coals, fireworks crackling overhead, and sprinklers raining cold pellets on heated skin. It’s not supposed to bring fear, rage, and a flight instinct roaring up through me, but it did. On a recent trip through President Trump-voting Indiana backcountry, my car broke down. And, the last thing I wanted to see was an American flag.

I was rolling down the interstate when the “check engine” light popped on. It was followed by the battery light and what sounded like a swift inhale as my navigator/18-year-old daughter detected the problem. She called her dad as I started eyeing places to pull off the road. We were on our way to her freshman orientation and were not on our own. My two-year-old daughter, and my five- and 15-year-old sons were in the now broken-down minivan, along with my daughter’s girlfriend. We were nowhere close to a metro area, so this car full of black, half-black, (and one-half Mexican) with an LGBTQ teen couple was destined to stop in the middle of Trump Country.

“You have to stop at the next town and get this checked out,” my husband told us over the phone. The next town had an AutoZone where, my husband told us, we could get the warning lights checked out to see what was really wrong with the van. He ended the call with, “I love you. Be careful.”

We rolled into town slowly, and not just because I was worried about the power we had left in the van. Everywhere we looked in the small town, there were American flags hanging from flagpoles outside most of the homes and storefronts along the road. They were also emblazoned on the vehicles and a part of the window paint designs at a car lot.

“Why does it feel like we’ve entered The Purge?” my older daughter asked. She asked the question we were all thinking, and I could by the tension building in the small space that everyone was just as nervous.

“Maybe they are just getting ready for the 4th,” I added.

“Whatever, mom,” I heard from my older son in the back. Then, he pointed out how the MAGA logos were nestled right up next to the symbol of American freedom. I kept driving until I got to the auto parts store which had its own flag regalia going on. I was so uncomfortable about going in that I called my husband again, Bluetooth in my ear engaged, just in case something went down.

There are so many people out there right now who would tell us that being afraid of the American symbol for patriotism was asinine. I would have agreed not too long ago. But, in the past two years especially, the American flag has become a large part of the white supremacy starter kit. You see it embedded in the avatars of trolls verified by Twitter and actively harassing melanin-abundant, queer, and non-Christian people on the social platform. The stars and stripes were carried in Charlottesville last year, right alongside the tiki torches and stars and bars of the Confederate flags as white faces spewed their hatred for people like all of us in that broken van. Trump himself positioned the flag like a cape of righteousness as he signed policies that put babies in cages and split families at the border, as he barred Muslims from most countries from coming to this one and each time he took another right away from the trans community.

I used to see the flag and think of cookouts, homemade ice cream, the beach, and fireworks. Now, all I see is a shroud that hateful people use to hide their hate behind.

I was very nervous walking into that store, and I think the manager could tell. He tested my car, talking through every step before he made it. The alternator was shot and had only enough power to last a few more hours. We went into the shop and went over my options.

I ultimately decided to get the car fixed. He sold me the part at a deep discount and called ahead to the shop in town to tell the owner I was coming. The manager kept saying that the guy he was sending me to was “good people.” I wasn’t reassured but my husband was in my ear telling me we had no other choice. The garage had several flags on it. The shop’s red, white and blue motif was enough to make me think really hard about taking my alternator to Lafayette, the next major metro area.

With my husband still on the phone, I worked out the details of the repair. The man behind the counter seemed nervous as well. My husband heard our conversation and said as much.

“He probably has his ideas about you, too.” He’s right, the propaganda that made me fear this place also sold them the rhetoric of welfare queens, Mexican rapists, and Muslim bombers. People like him (who weren’t already steeped in hatred) were told to hate us because we were dangerous. None of that would stop the man from doing something to me or the kids. I texted my sister to come meet us. She would be at the shop in an hour. A cop, my sis is always my back-up call.

All I could do was talk. And be kind, but vigilant. I taught my kids to listen to their instincts and it was time I did that same. I engaged the shop owner in small talk, and soon we got to work. My five-year-old son chattered all about his truck driver dad’s Peterbilt until the shop owner told us that he used to drive one too. The tension broke as the man started regaling us with stories of the road and my kids engaged him with tales they had heard from their dad. Suddenly, the threats posed by the symbols and the fear of people behind them faded.

My sister showed up to see my younger kids playing with some Hot Wheels the shop owner found in the back and the older ones checking out the dirt-track race car the owner had parked at the shop. She introduced herself and was an intriguing point of interest as the shop owner took a shine to a black police lieutenant who would drop everything to come to the aid of her sister in the middle of nowhere.

The repair took a few hours and should have cost several hundred dollars. Instead, the owner slipped me a bill full zero. He thanked us for the company that morning and said he just wanted to help someone in need. “We are all people here in the country, and we need to help one another.”

We all left feeling great about the shop, and the experience. But, I also have to say that I didn’t feel relief until we reached our destination.

While the kids and I did discuss how it was great to find nice people in the middle of Trump Country, we also knew that those symbols and the hatred that hid behind them was still rampant in this country.

Sure, the American flag has never truly been a source of refuge for black, queer, or non-Christian people in America. Today, however the red, white, and blue, the stars and stripes — the symbol of freedom in our country —  is now a signal that white supremacy has infected a space. They have been told that we are dangerous, lazy and there to take their things. It’s become Trump Country, and it’s no longer safe for folks like us.

Not everyone will be wise —or willing — enough to look past the propaganda and see us as people the way that shop owner did.


CONTRIBUTOR

Jonita Davis
Jonita Davis

Jonita Davis is a writer, comic nerd, and scholar on the intersection of popular culture and social issues.

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