Hold up! Did Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) say what I thought he said?
First off, McConnell knows how misleading this is. He ignores all the hoops and hurdles Black voters (and the young and the elderly) have to jump through and over not only to register to vote, but to actually cast a vote on Election Day. This doesn’t even take into account the millions who are being discouraged from even trying to vote.
But secondly — and far more importantly — African Americans are Americans. Isn’t it sad that really the only times I feel seen as an American are when I’m abroad? I’m not saying racism doesn’t exist outside of the United States. What I am saying is that the rest of the world can see that I’m American. Why is it so hard for so many White Americans?
When you’re Black in the United States, you grudgingly grow accustomed to having people deny that your existence is integral to everything that makes this country what it is. Usually, I roll my eyes and keep going in response to such nonsense. McConnell insists he misspoke; I have a hard time with that, since the leader is known to choose carefully what he says. But no matter how they came about, the words are illustrative of how Black people are seen by our fellow citizens. And the more I thought about them, the angrier the offense made me. I needed to respond.
I love taking photos of the American flag fluttering in the wind. So I hunted through my Google archive to find one of me with Old Glory in the background. What I found was a 2017 selfie, taken aboard a ferry in San Francisco Bay. I’m swaddled in a hat, coat and scarf, staring down at the camera that also captured the stars and stripes and crisp blue sky behind me.
I posted the photo on Twitter, with a simple message: “I *am* American. #mitchplease”
I wish I could take credit for the hashtag. The play on the tart rejoinder the phrase rhymes with is used almost nightly by MSNBC’s Joy Reid to rebuke McConnell for whatever it is he’s done that day. It perfectly summed up my attitude about what McConnell said — and my irritation at the mind-set the comment represents. I’m tired of rhetoric and actions that seek to cleave me from my country.
The reaction to the post showed me I’m far from alone, and that African Americans weren’t the only ones offended by a politician saying the quiet part out loud: The hashtag has been trending on Twitter for the past two days. And Black Americans across the country have joined me in the selfie strategy, posting pictures of themselves and demanding their place in the American story:
“100% American,” they said.
“I am an American that served America in the United States Army!”
“I am an American and nothing Mitch says will ever change that!”
Paula Dunn Brown from Dallas issued a particularly devastating twist on the tweet. The look on her face in the accompanying photo could speak for just about every Black person in the United States.
Even if the measured McConnell did misspeak, the slip shows how ossified the assumptions in our political discourse still are: “White” is always the default. Talk of suburban voters is really about White suburban voters. Women voters really means White women. And, as McConnell put it, American voters really means White American voters.
With #mitchplease, I was channeling my inner Langston Hughes. “I, too, am America,” he concluded in his 1926 poem “I, Too.” That this truth must be reiterated and reclaimed in 2022 is a shame.
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