The American house stands divided. In politics, at work, even in matters of love, we’re constantly told that there is more tension than togetherness, that suspicion has prevailed over trust.
Yet even now, people find ways to come together, to overcome the gaps that threaten to turn each person into a fortified island.
This Christmas, we profile people who decided to connect with others who were standing too far away, backs turned, ears shut tight. The divisions here take different forms; they are matters of race, politics, family and love. In every story, though, the bridge was built by someone who started fresh, listened well, rose above and looked beyond. In every story, the bridge has held.
A marriage ends; kindness endures
A tree limb had come crashing down in her front yard, and Angie Lawson did not want to call her husband. For hours, the January snowstorm had been rattling the windows of their Arlington home. The power had gone out. The temperature inside was dropping. But this house — their house, as she’d always called it — was now just her house.
A few days before, her husband, Barnes, had packed a bag and moved out. For 21 years, they’d been Mr. and Mrs. Lawson, a property lawyer and a preschool teacher. Three kids and a pew at Westover Baptist Church. Theirs was the kind of marriage other couples would be jealous of — until it wasn’t. And then they became sure that it never would be again.
Angie looked out the window. How was she supposed to move that tree? How were she and Barnes going to go from having one life together to having two separate ones? How do you divide something that is whole, and not end up with two broken halves?
Later, she would come to know the answer: Time. Space. Patience. Red wine.
And: Picking up the phone. She called, and Barnes came over to move the tree.
In the spring, he came to mow the lawn. In the fall, to blow the leaves. Without ever really talking about it, they seemed to make a decision. Just because they weren’t married didn’t mean they couldn’t be kind.
She drove him to the doctor. She reminded him whose birthday was coming up. When his parents passed away, she helped with all the paperwork, working closely with a law firm Barnes had hired to help sort it all out. When the firm saw how adept Angie was at organizing and understanding legal jargon, they offered her a full-time job. The firm was in the same building as Barnes’s practice.
It had been four years since that snowstorm. Their children had become accustomed to their separation. They had both started dating other people. Just as they were finding lives of their own, were they ready to go back to seeing each other every day?
Angie picked up the phone again. Together, they decided she should take the job.
A Klansman comes home
Rebecca Scott Hawkins was 93 when there was a knock on the door of her house on the black side of Indianola, Miss. She didn’t recognize the white man standing there, though his face had been on TV plenty. He had been a grand dragon of the Ku Klux Klan.
“It’s me, Becky,” he said. “It’s Scott.”
She had known Scott Shepherd since that day 58 years earlier when the delivery-room doctor had handed newborn Scott not to his exhausted mama, but to Hawkins. She worked 30 years and three generations for that Indianola family. They named this baby for her.
“I knew him all his life until he went out into the world,” Hawkins says. Out into the world of White Citizens Councils and Klan fliers, one of which got into the hands of 16-year-old Scott, angry and alienated and terrorized by his alcoholic father.
He went to a rally, then another. Soon the recruited became a recruiter. Sometimes he’d stop to visit Hawkins, hug her neck, then head to a Klan meeting. “I was like two people,” he says.
But the tension between his two worlds pushed him away. He lost contact with his own family, and with Hawkins.
She missed him. She heard disturbing reports. But she was busy. After raising six white children and four of her own, she was working for herself.
She did high-end catering, little finger sandwiches and pastries for debutante balls and Christmas galas. She worked for years, was an officer in her church, traveled to Italy, Jamaica, the Holy Land.
Shepherd, meanwhile, moved up in the Klan and down in life. He drank more, lost his wife and kids. He says he never committed violence, but he cheered it on. The FBI talked to him about a fire at a black fraternity at Ole Miss.
In 1990, he was pulled over, drunk, with an illegal .44 in the car. He agreed to rehab, planning to finish and get out quick. But something happened in group therapy. Addicts both white and black knew who he was and, still, they held him up, loved him. Something hard in him cracked. “I came out a different person,” he says.
Two years later, he had quit the Klan, endured death threats, gone into seclusion. It wasn’t tidy. It took years to understand where he’d been, how to get back. Finally, after nearly dying from stomach disease (eaten up by hate, he says) he decided to go public, help others, apologize for the rest of his life, if need be.
Starting on a front porch in Indianola that day nine years ago.
“It’s me, Becky. It’s Scott.”
She stared through bright, ancient eyes and swung the door wide. “Baby,” she said as he stepped into her arms, “I always knew you’d come home.”
When political opposites attract
The election results trickled in. Donald Trump had won, and Greg Nelson was stuck in a crowd of celebrating Trump fans at the Republican National Committee’s watch party in the nation’s capital. Nelson’s face turned white. He felt physically ill.
Nelson, a Democrat, had already placed a 10-foot-tall sign in their front yard celebrating Hillary Clinton’s expected victory. He asked his partner, Jose Cunningham — the chair of the District’s GOP — to take him home, immediately.
After they left the party early together, Nelson removed the Clinton swag on display at their house. He started what he called the long mourning process of coming to terms with the election result.
Nelson and Cunningham have been together for 21 years and have always had political differences. But Trump has proved a whole new test for them. Nelson recoils at Trump’s caustic manner and wonders what it says about the country’s values. Cunningham sees Trump’s impulsive tweets and biting speeches as bluster; he supports Trump for the foreign policy team he has assembled, the judges he’s appointed, and the government regulations he has dismantled.
“I’m an all-in Trump supporter,” Cunningham says.
“I’ve been shellshocked since the election,” Nelson says.
He still attends political events with Cunningham, accompanying him to the White House, snapping photos with Trump and Vice President Pence. (Still, during one White House visit, Nelson managed to sneak a selfie with a portrait of Hillary Clinton as first lady.)
At home, though, they’ve had arguments; they say Trump’s presidency has forced them to communicate better with one another — and watch a lot less news together.
One evening, Cunningham predicted Trump was going to be in office for another seven years. Nelson stormed upstairs. He says it was one of the first times in their relationship that he went to bed angry at his partner.
“That’s when I realized I need to moderate what I say,” Cunningham said.
“And I need to better tell him my limits,” Nelson said.
But politics were never what attracted them to each other. Cunningham can still make Nelson laugh each day. Nelson is still “Mr. Holiday”— the romantic man Cunningham loves because he goes all out in decorating their large house to bring the community together.
They know the country is more divided than ever before, but they hope their relationship can set an example: There are ways to share values, they say, and still hold opposing political views.
“We are a microcosm of what America is,” Cunningham said.
They’ve realized throughout their years together — and now more than ever — that when it comes to relationships and love, there are a lot more meaningful topics to discuss than politics.
A mind is a wonderful thing to change
“I Believe America is still segregated, patriarchal, racist,” the screed began, with a capital B in believe. “Slavery still exists, & Nothing has changed.”
Another 600 words followed. The anonymous author — let’s call the writer “B” — had included footnotes and extensive thoughts on the enduring hideousness of the United States.
And this challenge: “Change my view.”
Many tried. Oh, how they tried. This all took place a few years back on a Reddit forum called Change My View — a sort of social experiment challenging people to politely change minds on the Internet. An impossibility, you might think, and sometimes it is.
“That’s a pretty dumb viewpoint,” one of the first comments ventured. “We have a black president,” read another. “How the f— is that not progress?”
These only provoked another gusher from B, and more arguments, dribbling into long threads of mutual obstinance.
Staring at a screen in his dorm room, Brandon Chin-Shue’s immediate reaction to B’s text was much like the others: “To try and find a part of their view that was weakest, and kick away,” he said.
It felt personal. “My dad’s parents are from Jamaica,” Brandon said. “His grandfather was a Chinese indentured servant.” His parents both immigrated to what he grew up believing is a flawed but worthy — and endlessly improving — United States.
Brandon was a bright, somewhat stubborn sophomore at the Georgia Institute of Technology. He had not managed to change anyone’s view on the Internet, but he was determined to keep trying.
“You seem to be very hyperbolic,” he typed. “Intellectually dishonest.”
Well, B shot back, maybe hyperbole was called for. Prison was essentially slavery, after all, and black Americans are “as good as lynched,” even now.
“That’s ridiculous,” Brandon wrote. He might be in chains today if the country hadn’t progressed.
They went back and forth for half a day, teetering on the brink of the rhetorical tar pit into which so many online discussions sink. But when B asked Brandon: “Do you stand by the notion that Abolition was a successful movement?” something twigged in his 20-year-old brain.
He thought about how his black father came to this country because he believed in its future. Brandon thought about how he too believed in it, and about what he was trying to accomplish on a Sunday evening before finals, butting heads with a stranger on the Internet.
Forget about winning the argument, he thought. “I want to teach them.”
So he typed: “Black people in America didn’t stop with abolition. We fought hard for more equality, and when we were denied by nearly the entire white population, we fought harder.”
He kept typing: “We still fight to this day, because, to us, things are not equal. But they’re much better than before. We fight today to make tomorrow better.”
He poured his heart out, not wanting to persuade anymore, but simply to explain.
B’s final reply came through that night.
“You are right,” it began.
“Without me being okay, they wouldn’t be okay”
For generations, the child welfare system has been all Sharkkarah Harrison’s family has ever known.
Her grandmother lost her father. Her mother and father lost her. Sexually abused at age 8, ward of the state by age 9, runaway from foster care by 16, pregnant by 17. Sharkkarah had four children by four fathers, yet no one had taught her how to raise a child.
She vowed not to make the same mistakes as her parents had. But then her oldest daughter told her school principal that Sharkkarah was hitting her. Child welfare services saw the bruises and put the girl and her younger siblings, Dayvieon and Saneja, in foster care.
For months, Sharkkarah could hardly get out of bed for the visits she was allowed with her children. She couldn’t bear to face the children she had failed. In the visiting area of the foster care agency, her son Dayvieon would watch other parents show up to see their children.
“I felt like I didn’t really have a mom or a family,” Dayvieon said.
Then, Sharkkarah started getting out of bed more. She found the right therapist. She started journaling about her past. “Without me being okay, they wouldn’t be okay,” she said. “It had to start with me.”
Finally, after three years, six foster homes, and eight social workers, Sharkkarah, 28, heard the long-awaited knock at her apartment door.
“Mommy!” Dayvieon and Saneja screamed as they charged into her arms.
It was five days before Christmas 2015. Their temporary housing in the Bronx didn’t allow trees. So in the corner of the apartment, Sharkkarah had arranged her children’s wrapped presents: a remote control car and Spider-Man action figure for 7-year-old Dayvieon; a baby doll and stroller for 6-year-old Saneja.
Dayvieon and Saneja had joined their mother and her baby for good, but the family was not whole. When, the kids asked, would their older sister come home?
Sharkkarah tried to explain a word Dayvieon and Saneja didn’t fully understand: Adoption. Their older sister chose to be adopted by her foster family, she told them. “But we’ll still get to see her. She’s still going to be your sister,” she said.
She held Dayvieon and Saneja tight as they cried. They asked if they could stay in Sharkkarah’s bed, just like old times.
Huddled around a tablet, the children fell asleep watching “Home” on Netflix. Sharkkarah watched them, stroking their hair, giving them gentle kisses late into the night.
The next years wouldn’t be easy. The kids would throw tantrums, ask after their older sister, suffer nightmares of foster parents who had spanked them. Almost every night, in Dayvieon’s dreams, he was sent back to foster care. “I wake up crying and scared,” he said. “But then, when I open my eyes, I’m actually not there.”
Together, Sharkkarah and her children would heal. And this time, she would never let them go.