You always knew they were there. Close. Sometimes, you feared, right in your neighborhood.
You could tell who they were by their accents, the way they dressed. They didn’t look like you. They didn’t act like you. Their backgrounds — so different from yours. But you weren’t interested in learning about them. They were low-life scum. Cockroaches.
They kind of scared you. They gave you dirty looks. They probably talked shit about you.
You were afraid that if someday they had access to power, that would be it — your familiar way of life would be over. You were glad they were a “marginalized population” because the last thing you wanted was for them to get their hands on power.
You knew how much they hated the president. It was kind of pathological, how much they hated the president. Another reason to hate them.
On the other hand, you knew they would have access to power, and soon. You could see it coming: the newly visible confederate flags, the stockpiling of automatic weapons, the Facebook posts about how Black Lives Matter was a conspiracy against the police. Finally, their incomprehensible support of a racist, sexist, demagogic presidential candidate. You found all that anti-immigrant talk disturbing and disgusting, but you laughed at the Facebook post by someone from your old neighborhood: “Respect are country, speak English.”
But yesterday you stopped laughing.
You wondered: Were there really that many of them? How had you not seen them? You’d grown up with them, after all. Your old neighborhood was a famous working class area on the South Side of Chicago, behind the sprawling Union Stockyards. They were your family, your grammar school friends. And your bullies. When you remember this, when you remember how they ridiculed you for being different, you see how it’s possible that they would fight with their last ounce of strength against anything that feels “different.” How, because of their lack of imagination and experience (because they weren’t exactly encouraged to be curious), they would feel threatened by anything “different.”
Being okay with being different means you have a kind of freedom. And why should you have the freedom to do whatever you want? They never could.
When you read about gay teens being tormented in school, the faces that greeted you whenever you walked into a classroom come to mind. When you read about a teenage girl killing herself because of constant bullying, you think: That could’ve been me.
You had wondered, for a minute, why they were being such assholes about gay marriage, unisex public toilets, transgender teens wanting to be called “they.” But you know why. You want to tell those teens: They hate your freedom because they never felt free.
That’s why you never knew they were there. They never felt free enough to speak up.
And then they did.
And it was too late.
You thought they were on the margins, in their white trash trailer homes, on their couches, watching reality TV and shoving Walmart snacks down their throats. Turns out they were right in the middle. And you, with your post-graduate degree and your refrigerator full of organic eggs and almond milk, and your self-satisfaction about having escaped the working class abyss, were prowling the perimeter.
Turns out they had aspirations. Maybe not to go to college — they’d never been encouraged to do that — but they’d definitely had dreams. A decent job is a dream. But how were you supposed to know? They seemed content with their Walmart jobs, their TVs, their guns. But the guns had become part of the dreams, because the dreams had changed.
And so when you heard the news yesterday, you remembered that Langston Hughes poem about a dream deferred, even though you know it wasn’t written with them in mind. What happens to a dream deferred?
It sags like a heavy load.
And then it explodes.