January 20, 2009, was a frigid day in Washington, D.C., and also a historic one. So many moments still stick out about that day — the mink coats, the church hats, Barack Obama becoming president of the United States — but the thing I remember most was the presence of so much custom-made presidential merchandise on the National Mall.
That day was a 100-year flood of airbrushed T-shirts, Obama family buttons, and anything that could fit Barack, Martin, Malcolm, Gandhi, and Jesus on a single surface. There was a sense of pride in the shirts and hats and buttons, but also a beauty in the shamelessness — equal parts capitalism, creativity, and swindle.
On the first day of the convention, I did loops around the most heavily populated sales area, trying to catch the eye of the numerous black people selling pro-Trump gear, just so they could see the disappointment in my face.
“Oh, word?” my face screamed. The look I typically got back: “I don’t care about you and that ’tude. Please get out the way so these white people can give me their money, good-bye.”
All that did was piss me off even more. I was convinced these black people were plants from the Trump campaign, conveniently located on high-traffic blocks to make it look as if “the blacks” really did support the GOP nominee. To make it worse, it felt like they were doing a stealth tap dance, performing for white people, because there were so few black people around to call them out.
This was my line of thinking until that evening. Walking away from the main merch area, I overheard one of the black vendors selling pro-Trump gear being interviewed. The journalist asked him his name, and the vendor responded, “I’ll just give you my first name. Don’t really want my friends to think of me differently. Just trying to provide.”
I was reminded once again that most things are not as black and white as we think, or even as we want them to be when attempting to prove a point. The next day I went back to talk to as many of these black vendors as possible, to get their story.
“Fuck that bitch-ass nigga Trump.”
This statement came from a car driving by one of the booths that was currently being run by a black woman, its pro-Trump T-shirts on full display.
The booth I was at, however, was the unicorn of Cleveland: A black woman was selling custom-made bow ties, including one of kente cloth, and next to her a black man and woman were selling Obama 2008 buttons, dashikis, Black Lives Matter bracelets, Cleveland Cavaliers apparel, and “I Was There” Republican National Convention lanyards.
Seeing their booth sandwiched between two very pro-Trump stands, I asked one of the women how she felt about all of the Trump gear.
“I think we can all live, harmoniously,” she said, gesturing to her left and right. “There are black Republicans. They’re real, I’ve touched them.” I knew she was right about that, and I smiled, but then she got to the real point.
“Capitalism, it’s a beautiful thing.”
Leaving with said kente-cloth bow tie and two buttons, I approached the woman whose booth appeared to be the recipient of the earlier shouts.
Bringing up the car that drove by, I asked if other black people had given her a hard time for selling merchandise celebrating a man who doesn’t seem to be terribly fond of black people. “Yeah, some people have said stuff, but not much really bothers me,” she said. “This is a tough industry to be in.”
Before I could respond, she said, “You know what, though? One time this white man came up to me. He was like, ‘Do you sell Black Lives Matter stuff?’ And I was like, ‘No.’ And he was like, ‘Good, because all they do is complain, and also, the reason that black boy got shot is because he was reaching for his gun.’ And I was like, ‘Damn, people really do tell themselves whatever they want to hear.’”
It was clear she was not a die-hard Trump fan. “I’m not out here necessarily for Trump, but I’m out here for me. No one knows what or who I’m out here working for.”
Continuing my walk, I approached another black man, with a table at one of the most heavily populated intersections of the convention. Asking him how he got the spot, he talked about how early he had to get there, how it was first-come first-served, as long as you had a permit.
“The hats, I got through the campaign,” he said, “but the buttons and shirts, that’s all me.” I wondered if you had to prove some loyalty to Trump to purchase official gear. “Nah, they don’t care,” he said.
When I mentioned that the merchandise scene reminded me of the inauguration, he replied, “Oh yeah, I was out there, too. Was cold as hell, had the peacoat buttoned up to my neck.”
Finishing my loop, I made it to one of the other busy areas, near the entrance of Quicken Loans Arena, site of the convention. There was a black man with a great spot, selling his own versions of Trump shirts and buttons. We began to talk, and I told him that many of the other black vendors I’d spoken to didn’t seem to be pro-Trump — they were just out here for the hustle.
“I got a feeling Hillary is going to win,” he said.
Right as he said it, his phone rang. When he hung up, he said, “Got to pack it up.” There was someone checking permits in the area, and he didn’t have one. As he put away his wares, I asked him what he thought about Hillary Clinton. “I don’t want any president, really. I don’t like either of them.”
This is a good profession for someone who dislikes both candidates. There’s no emotion in it, purely business. And he’d be at it again in a few months. “Inauguration. It’s coming up real soon.”