Last summer, VICE filmed Abdullah Saeed, Wilbert L. Cooper, and Martina de Alba as they embarked on an epic road trip during the frenzied 2016 election season. Their mission was to find out what the hell is going on in America as we come to the end of the Obama era and fall headfirst into uncertain political terrain. The show, VICE Does America, premieres on VICELAND at 10 PM on July 6.
All three of the hosts brought their own unique perspectives to the show. So we asked them to tell us a little bit about how they developed their own, personal views of America. This is what Wilbert had to say.
My great, great grandfather was enslaved down on a plantation in South Carolina. My great grandfather after him was a sharecropper, which isn't that far off from slavery. Me? I'm a journalist for VICE media. I'm a descendant of people who were once outlawed from reading and writing, who is now paid to share my ideas, my thoughts, and my words on one of the biggest platforms on the planet.
This sort of American ascendance is awesome, especially since my story is certainly not the most impressive one out there. Right now, our black President sleeps in the White House, which was built by enslaved people who had the same skin color as him. These kind of stories are everywhere today and they're a big part of what makes this country a place that struggling people from all over the world want to come to—they want a shot at that American dream.
Unfortunately, these anecdotes can be misleading, especially when they overstate how far we've come without pointing to how far we have yet to go. Although chattel slavery is long gone, many of the pernicious ideas that underpinned it remain and manifest themselves in everything from our legal system to the way we communicate with each other. Although a lot of people have argued to me that racism no longer exists, that's simply not true—I've been grappling with my status as a black man in this country ever since I was child.
I grew up right outside of Cleveland, Ohio, in a staid westside suburb filled with quaint cul-de-sacs and streets named after forest animals. It was a conservative community made of second generation white flighters, who moved even farther west than their parents to flee the blight and blackness of the inner city. My parents, who came up in the ghetto on the east side of Cleveland, followed the white folks out there so that I could have a shot at a decent public education thanks to living in a community with high property values. And it was there in that suburb, surrounded by whites, that I first started to realize who I was in America—and that my America was different than that of my classmates.
That realization of my identity in this nation has been an ongoing process for me as a millennial, who came of age in a time when it feels like we are living through both a period of "hope and change" and the reflexive New Jim Crow. But never had this dichotomy been more clear to me than when I started working for VICE.
I came to VICE in 2011 as an intern. I was fresh out of school, still basking in the reverie of the election of President Barack Obama. And having finally moved away from Ohio, I honestly thought that living in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and working at VICE would be different, that New York was like a country unto itself, where I could have a kind of cosmopolitan life that transcended race and history.
Of course, when you're black, you don't have the luxury of even feigning colorblindness. Because America always has a way of reminding you who you are, no matter where you are or what you are doing. I was reminded with a sucker punch from a racist bigot a few blocks away from the VICE office. The assailant called me a nigger just before he took a swing at me for no reason other than detesting the color of my skin. And like so many other young people of this generation, I was reminded again when I saw the murder of Trayvon Martin, because I instantly saw myself in his death as much as I had once seen myself in the triumph of Barack Obama.
So I can't say that I was totally surprised when race started to become a powerful theme as I crisscrossed the country in an RV during the 2016 election season with Abdullah and Martina for the upcoming show VICE Does America. Sending a black guy, a Muslim dude, and an immigrant girl into the deepest recesses of America is kind of asking for trouble—it's bait for bringing to the surface all of the things that make this country fascinating and repugnant.
That trip, from the very outset, helped crystalize this duality I've been reckoning with ever since I was young. It proved to me once again that this is a land of great heights and deep lows, of immense beauty and unadulterated depravity. And these things, the good and the abhorrent, are both historical and ever-present—they stretch from the brutal past of our ancestors to the contentious present we live in today.
To see what Wilbert experienced on his journey across the country, tune into 'VICE Does America' on Wednesdays at 10 PM on VICELAND. The premiere is July 6th.
Follow Wilbert on Twitter.