“Can I buy a cig from you?” I said to a lean dude in a kid-size leather jacket.
“You can just have one,” he replied, pointing the box in my direction. I yanked a Camel out; he sparked it and continued up the path.
I really thought I quit smoking, but I needed a puff after I spoke at a book fair in Florida. The conversation wasn’t too intense or heartbreaking; however, the booksellers forgot to order my books and the capitalist in me curled up and died over and over again every time I heard someone say, “I wanted your book so bad, but it wasn’t available!”
A few of the hosts came over to comfort me. “I’m sorry, we’ll make this right." Or, "Would you like some cake and punch?” I just kept telling them not to worry. What was I going to do? Flip out and cause a wild scene as one of the few black guys in the middle of a zillion white people?
As my cigarette burned out, a middle-aged white man walked up to me.
“Hey, you had some good stuff to say," he said. "I’m not buying your book, but the talk was nice.”
“Thank you,” I replied. He went on to ask me what I thought of Trump.
“I’m a new Republican, D.," he said. "And I just think that Trump is going to get our people — meaning yours and mine — back to work.”
I thought about those terms, "my people" and "your people," as if we both aren’t Americans.
“You know, man, I don’t like new people,” I said. “I can't trust them. Meaning that you have to be a Republican for at least two years before I can listen to any of your right-wing opinions.”
He took off his hat and used the brim to scratch his head. “I’m not following you, Mr. Watkins.”
“It’s simple,” I told him. “I hate new. That means new Republicans, new Democrats, newly single people, newly married people, newly fit people, and basically anybody who just started anything.”
He laughed. “Man, you are a silly one!”
I explained how silly he was for not understanding. Like a vegan who is only 26 hours into an animal-free diet telling me how to eat — look how their skin cleared up -- while I'm holding a chicken wing. Wait at least two weeks to demonize me. You can’t judge on your first day.
“I never thought about it like that,” he said. “But Trump is new, fresh, with great ideas on getting all of our people in America back to work. It’s that simple.”
He said it again, all of "our" people.
“You do know I am an American, right? African-American, but still an American.”
“OK, I see what you are doing. I didn’t mean it like that,” he said, putting both hands up in a pushback motion. I moved closer toward him.
“Funny how they call me African-American and you American," I said. "It’s like the divide is permanent. Right?”
He pondered for a second. “Well, I’m not one of those people who say that unhappy blacks should go home to Africa. I understand why people do, because if you are unhappy you do have a choice. But Trump gets that because he meets everyone, the blacks, the Asians, everyone.”
A representative from the bookstore that organized the festival joined the conversation. “Mr. Watkins, I just bought over 10 copies of 'The Beast Side.' I’m so sorry about the mix-up with your other book. Please forgive us. I’m new at handling festival ordering.”
“Oh, you are new, huh?” I asked. My conversation partner and I both started laughing, while the festival guy look confused.
I told him that it was all good and asked for a second. I then walked to the side with the Trump fan.
“Man, I don’t know you and you don’t me, but, one, I can't just get up and move to Africa, just like you can't just get up and move to Europe, even though no one is ever going to tell you to do that," I said. "And two, Baldwin said that he loved America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, he insisted on the right to criticize it perpetually.”
“And who is this Baldwin?” the guy asked.
I then told him that he is one of us — tapping him on the chest, and then myself. We built this country; we contributed to all of the innovation, art, culture and definitely the infrastructure. There was no need for me to drag him for not knowing who James Baldwin was. Getting him to think outside of the trap that is his context and skin color felt more important.
“Have a good day, man, I gotta run,” I told him. “But remember — we’ll always have issues until you learn to see 'them' as 'us.' It’s not easy. I work on it daily.”