We were in Washington County, just a few miles west of the river that keeps Ohio separate from Wild Wonderful West Virginia to the east. It’s a county that’s even less diverse than the one where we live in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. When we were on this rural Ohio road a year earlier, the sign at this house said, “Obama Mohammed Camel Dung.” What it said a year ago was “Imagine There’s No Islam.”
Driving past it around ten o’clock that morning on the way to meet family, I held up my middle finger. Passing by it again a couple of hours later, I stopped and rolled down the window. That’s when I took the picture. Right after I took it, I started to hear dogs barking. If it were just me in the car, I would have stayed. I guess it’s sort of like what happens in my poem that goes, “Poetry is giving the finger to the biggest guy in the room just to see what happens.” But since it wasn’t just me in the car, I drove off.
In a couple of minutes, a song by the Syrian musician Omar Souleyman came up in the random mix on the car stereo. If his music had come up just a little bit earlier, while I had the window rolled down, I imagine I wouldn’t have been able to resist turning the volume up to eleven—and waiting to see what happened. What I prefer not to imagine are what someone who would display signs like these would do if he saw me and my family hovering on the side of the road by his house. We weren’t on his property, but people like him tend to blur the line between public and property, with property being anyplace where they think people who are different from them shouldn’t be allowed to set foot.
Another thing that’s not hard to imagine is that today, when Donald Trump was sworn in as the forty-fifth President of the United States, was a day of celebration for him. I could easily see him and his family among the people who came to DC today wearing their Make America Great Again hats and asking how to get to the mall. And, later, cheering upon hearing Trump declare, “We will reinforce old alliances and form new ones and unite the civilized world against radical Islamic terrorism, which we will eradicate from the face of the Earth.” That is, after all, among the things he imagines, with one problem being that for a lot of folks like him, there is no difference between Islam and “radical Islam.”
This morning I took my daughter to an Occupy rally in Malcolm X Park, just a few blocks down from the neighborhood where I grew up in DC. Although my old neighborhood has gone through a lot of gentrification, there’s still a wide variety of people there. It’s always a nice break, going to a place where I feel welcome simply as another member of the human race. Where I live now isn’t like that and having a person like Donald Trump setting the tone as president sure as hell ain’t going to make things better there. Indeed, this is a presidency for those who want to imagine me and a whole lot of other kinds of people gone.
But tonight, I’m here, in my old family home, where I grew up from about the age of six until I left for New York. It’s a period of time during which I went from knowing little to knowing a few things. And during which I went from wanting simply to fit in to wanting unequivocably to be whatever the hell it is I am.
I’m writing this while sitting at the wobbly dining room table where my family would eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner. My father and my mother are gone now, but one of my brothers still lives here in this house, and my other brother is only about twenty minutes away. I’m listening to an old Taj Mahal record, The Real Thing, that includes this old tune I love called, “Ain’t Gwine Whistle Dixie (Any Mo’)” which feature Taj on his guitar and whistling a tune that definitely isn’t “Dixie.” And as I listen to it I’m doing my best, in the face of coming hard times and whatever variety of obscene obstacles may be in store for us, to imagine better days.
Photograph by Jose Padua taken in Malcolm X Park on January 20. 2017