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VICE Does America

What I Learned as a Black Man Travelling Through the Terrifying Heart of America

As I traveled the nation for VICE, I saw some Americans yearning for a time that had long since passed, a time that they barely understood, a time that was defined by white supremacy.

by Wilbert L. Cooper
15 August 2016, 4:00am

Wilbert at a Civil War Reenactment.

This article originally appeared on VICE US.

Last summer, I piled into an ancient Ford Fleetwood Jamboree RV with my friends Abdullah Saeed and Martina de Alba to go on a road trip for our VICELAND show, VICE Does America. The producers' idea was to have a black man, a Muslim dude, and a Spanish immigrant girl drive from LA to DC in the run up to the 2016 presidential election and find out what direction our country was headed.

We were the perfect motley crew to host the politically themed travel show, considering our biographies touched on all three of America's hottest issues. Martina, who fought like hell to make a life in this country, could speak on the dysfunction around the US immigration system. Abdullah, a punk Pakistani American with a penchant for pot, represented the true diversity of Islam at a moment when Muslims are often viewed with profound distrust and fear. And I brought the voice of the black American male at a time when the country was beginning to ask if the lives of young black men actually mattered.

Then, as now, it felt like America was tearing itself into pieces. The world was getting hotter, both literally and figuratively. Protests had sprung up in the face of continued racial injustice and were gaining momentum, but they were also countered by militarized police forces and the xenophobic rhetoric of Donald Trump. And the Obama era, with all its initial promise and sobering realities, was coming to an end, conjuring up an intense sense of uncertainty about the future.


Abdullah, Martina, and Wilbert dressed for a Mexica rodeo

As we pulled out of VICE's headquarters in LA, the air felt ominous. We really had no idea what we were about to get into. Martina, Abdullah, and I all lived in Brooklyn, a bubble of youth, prosperity, and social progressivism compared to much of the country. Adding to the sense of uncertainty, our producers had been deliberately cagey about the places we were going to go and the people we were going to meet. We just didn't know what to expect.

Even after spending 30 days pushing that sweltering RV through as many states and meeting dozens of extreme characters from all walks of life, I can't say America is any less mysterious to me today than it was at the beginning of my journey. But seeing my country up close left me constantly in awe. I don't have the words to describe the wonder I felt seeing sun climb above the red sands of Monument Valley or what it was like to run my hands across the leaves of overhanging cypress trees as I floated through a lazy bayou in Louisiana.

I was touched as well by the tight-knit communities I encountered who managed to embrace the US while still maintaining their own way of life. I met Mexican Americans in Texas who put on a rodeo called a charreada that was equal parts Wyatt Earp and Emilliano Zapata. I met a Lakota Native American motorcycle club who embraced its tribe's illustrious history as well as the lifestyle of outlaw "One Percenters." These are the kinds of people who have stories that could only be told in this country.

Unfortunately, I was also disenchanted by the undercurrent of racial hate that I saw from coast to coast. As a sort of baptism by fire, one of our first stops was an interracial cuckold porn shoot, where I saw the age-old stereotypes of black men as savage, sex-crazed beasts turned into XXX entertainment. As I watched a white actress and two hulking brothers dripping in baby oil get it on, the white director told me the film's target audience was mainly white Southerners, a demographic whom he said actually begged his studio for more degradation and sexual minstrelsy. There's a kind of terrible logic to that: You'd only find those sorts of scenes sexy if you were fearful of and repulsed by black men, if you saw them not as people but as some kind of fierce, untamed taboo.

What was fascinating to me was how that piece of pornography was so steeped in plantation-era raceplay. The stereotype of black men as sexual aggressors against white women was often used as one of the main excuses to subjugate blacks—it also obscures the actual history of rape in America slavery, once a routine practice in this country. How did we get so far from truth in our ideas about one another?

I thought a lot about the real and imagined history of slavery on my trip across the country. Time and time again, I came across distorted takes on its practice and ramifications, which have lead me to feel that even though more than 150 years have elapsed since the Civil War, the rot at the core of the American experiment remains. What distraught me the most was this sort of hate-filled nostalgia people I met seemed to have. They fetishized bygone eras that were defined by the brutalization and subjugation of my ancestors.


Lubrication supplies on the cuckold porn set

Our next stop on the trip after the porn set was the Nevada home of Cliven Bundy, a wealthy rancher who's been battling it out with the federal government for decades over his usage of federally owned land. Bundy first made nationwide headlines in 2014 when he had an armed standoff with the government over the land dispute, in which the feds eventually backed down. That face-off turned him into a nationwide celebrity, especially for those involved in the "liberty" movement, making his pontifications on everything from state's rights to the race relations newsworthy. It was during this time that Bundy suggested he felt blacks in America might have been better off when they were enslaved, because back then they didn't rely on the government to provide them with welfare.

When I came to his rustic, wooden one-floor home, the feeble old man was pretty hospitable. Abdullah, Martina, and I sat on his big couch in his living room as his wife came out from the kitchen with a plate of watermelon slices. Of course, I didn't eat any. But I did try to engage him in a conversation about what he was getting at when he made his infamous statements. Although he eventually apologized to me personally for what he'd said in the past, he held onto his idea that things might've actually been better in this country when black men were forced into labor, never compensated for their work, and denied any semblance of dignity or participation in our democracy.

Getting even a slight apology from a guy who wouldn't back down to armed federal agents probably should have made me feel pretty good. But instead I was troubled as I left his ranch because I knew he was the face of a bigger movement. There are thousands, if not millions, of people across the nation who share his views, and it unnerved me to think of what this already chaotic country would look like if they got their way, possibly through the election of someone like Donald Trump.


Wilbert, Abdullah, and Martina on the Bundy ranch, being taught how to shoot a gun

As weird as my interaction with Bundy was, the greatest reverence for the days of the antebellum South that I encountered on my trip had to be in Jacksonville, Alabama. Toward the end of our journey, the producers dropped us in the middle of a Civil War reenactment with the promise that the attendees were merely history buffs. As we marched up the hill to where the Civil War camp and battles were to take place, we could see all the hallmarks of the Old South, with bold Confederate battle flags fluttering in the air.

I had a sneaking suspicion things would get ugly, but I tried to put my best foot forward. I donned a hotter-than-hell wool costume, so I could look the part of a Union soldier, and hopped around in military formations, shooting off caps in the direction of Confederate cosplayers. But every time there was a lull in the action, I heard people saying off-the-wall shit—that slavery wasn't that bad for blacks, that enslaved blacks weren't brutalized, that enslaved blacks loved the Confederacy so much they fought for it in the South's "integrated" military... When I heard this last bit, I knew we had to get out of there. The producers had wanted us to spend the night at the reenactment camp, but there was no way I was sleeping in a place where people legitimately believed that a large number of enslaved blacks willfully supported their own bondage. The idea was even more reprehensible than what I'd heard from Bundy.

Statements like that made these people seem eager to legitimize America's horrible history of white supremacy. I was amazed at how much these people pointed to that past as something to aspire to, something to return to. And they had had spent thousands of dollars on costumes and gear to get as close as they could to actually going back in time. It was just too much for me.

Again and again on our trip, I saw white Americans yearn for a time that had long since passed—a time that, often, they seemed to barely understand. It was only after the trip was over that I realized that it was the gulf between these backward-looking fantasies and this modern moment that has made America such an ugly and angry place to be recently, especially on the campaign trail.

I'm reminded of a quote from Don DeLillo's classic novel White Noise: "Nostalgia is a product of dissatisfaction and rage. It´s a settling of grievances between the present and the past. The more powerful the nostalgia, the closer you come to violence." I'm also reminded of Beenie Man, who said basically the same thing but shorter: "When yuh live in the past, yuh lost."

I don't think I'll ever understand the hateful nostalgia of a Cliven Bundy or those Civil War reenactors. As a black man in America, there aren't many bygone eras I'm fond of, except maybe the gangsta rap of the early 90s. Trump's "Make America Great Again" slogan makes no sense to me. When was America great for people who looked like I do? Not during slavery, not during the Jim Crow era, not at the height of the war on drugs... There is no time I'd rather be young and black in America than right now, because at least today I have more of a fighting chance at survival.


Wilbert at the RNC. Photo by Jason Bergman

Most forms of nostalgia are benign—flannel comes back in, hair gets bigger then smaller again. But the sort of white nostalgia that has fueled Trump's rise is inextricably connected to the racial supremacy that was there at the dawning of this nation. It's impregnated with the idea that black people are inferior, that whites must be defended from the chaotic dark-skinned hordes.

I felt this when I was reporting for VICE at the Republican National Convention last month in my hometown of Cleveland. During Trump's speech, every time he made dog-whistle appeals to "law and order," the crowd erupted in feverous applause. The fear, anger, and hope were tangible among the delegates and supporters, who were whooped up by his fire-and-brimstone rhetoric. It was like being inside one of those late-night pharmaceutical commercials that seem to invent a disastrous new medical condition, then sell you on their cure. But this time, the problem wasn't "restless leg syndrome"; it was our country's black boogeymen and Trump alone was the solution.

When people like Trump say they want to bring a return to "law and order," they are talking about a particular kind of order from a bygone era, one in which a white man's dominance in society was an unquestionable fact. Just talk to the people who support him, or listen to the cries and chants at his rallies, if you doubt this. The candidate has a long history of being accused of discriminatory business practices, but it doesn't even matter what is in his heart—his campaign has emboldened American racists.

Trump's support is greatest among

Wilbert, Martina, and Abdullah at the end of their trip

uneducated white men with limited employment prospects and an increasingly marginalized position in society. It's much easier, I imagine, for them to blame the specter of lawless black men, terrorist Muslims, and rapist Mexican immigrants for their problems than to grapple with the public and private institutions that have failed and harmed Americans of all races. In truth, we have common enemies. Whites are victims of extrajudicial police violence; whites are victims of the drug war; whites are victims of the deregulated financial system. But when these marginalized white people are stripped of their money, opportunity, and hope, they are sometimes comforted by their distorted view of superiority and the backward culture they claim to uphold. Which is why they flock to Trump. He's offering a way to cling to that feeling just a little while longer.

The good news is that hateful nostalgia is losing and was always destined to. As James Baldwin once said, "To accept one's past—one's history—is not the same thing as drowning in it. An invented past can never be used. It cracks and crumbles under the pressures of life like clay in a season of drought."

Right now, Trump is falling in the polls in large part thanks to folks who realize that the hate enshrined in the legacy of white supremacy creates a toxic environment for everyone, poisoning everything connected to it, making monsters out of all of us.

Instead of trying to recreate a flawed vision of the past, we need to think about how we can do better in the future. I thought about this sentiment a lot when Abdullah, Martina, and I finally reached our ultimate destination of Washington, DC. We arrived in the early morning, when the streets were completely desolate, and we drove straight to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue to see the White House. We stood outside the gates and looked at the building that was such a source of inspiration and despondency for the different people we met across the country on our trip.

It was so powerful to know that a black man was inside that center of power, sleeping between the walls that—as Michelle Obama noted at the Democratic National Convention—were once built by black slaves. It was also sobering to realize that no matter how good it felt to have a black president, his presence in the White House had not cured the cancer of hate and racism inside this country. If anything, it helped bring more of it to the surface, like summer rain summoning all the earthworms out onto the concrete. But I knew, regardless of my mixed feelings over his triumphs and his failures, the last thing I wanted was for us to go backward. America is not great, it has never been great, but it's what we've got and we need to keep fighting to make it better.

Follow Wilbert L. Cooper on Twitter.