IOWA, January 12 — “Did anyone say anything to you, while you were here?”
I was with a small circle of people, but it was clear the young woman in the University of Northern Iowa track jacket was talking only to me. And based on her complexion, a similar brownish hue to my own, I understood what she was getting at. We were at UNI’s wrestling gym in Cedar Falls, where a Donald Trump rally had just wrapped up. The way she asked it, with a hint of concern in her voice, suggested there was another layer under that question. No one had, I said, but then I told her about the stares I’d felt that evening, and all day. Those glares had become commonplace since I landed in Iowa three days prior, and they were only magnified today. Still focused my way, she continued:
“So a person came up to me and said, ‘Aren’t you the wrong color to be here?’”
Iowa is only 3.4 percent black, but the previous evening, I had found a setting in Des Moines that felt like Harlem. I was there to help moderate a presidential candidate event (the GOP contenders declined, leaving only the three Democratic candidates) titled the Brown & Black Forum for Fusion. An event with that title in Iowa feels like an oxymoron, but it’s not only real, it’s been a staple in presidential campaigns since 1984. It was started by Wayne Ford, a black man, and his wife, Mary Campos, a Hispanic woman, who live in Des Moines.
Before the forum, Wayne made it clear he was putting the future of his event in the hands of what he considered to be a younger, inexperienced group of moderators. “I wanted Tavis Smiley,” Wayne said, looking me square in the eyes, as we sat in a conference room at Drake University. I nodded my head, smiling, as if to say, “Of course you did.” Wayne’s friend Ronald laughed, and said, “If Tavis is too old, we really must be old,” causing Wayne to shake his head, and everyone else in the room to laugh.
Between that meeting, the mixed crowd at the forum, the students assembled on the stage, and my fellow moderators, I was forced to adjust some of my preconceived notions about the state. With that said, it still felt like the black and brownest thing to ever happen in Iowa — that is, until later that night.
“Miami! Detroit! Chicago! New York! We made history!”
The speaker was Wayne, but things had changed. Instead of nervously passing a baton to a group of strangers, he was all smiles, behind a DJ booth, celebrating. Wayne Ford was no more: This was DJ Nighthawk, smiling and talking and hugging anyone in his vicinity as if he’d just won Olympic gold, playing old-school R&B like it was his 40th high-school reunion party. Wayne was in the clouds. Hours earlier, he was sizing me up. But now he was my fun black uncle, making me promise to let him know if I ever needed anything.
I couldn’t have been happier for him. He’d been a black man in Iowa for a long time. And he’d repeatedly said that most of the things we were struggling with in 2016 were the same as when they did their first forum in 1984. Who knew if any change would come from those two hours with the three Democratic candidates, but for one night Wayne felt like this underappreciated thing he and his wife began was relevant, and would live on.
The venue of the lightly attended Jeb Bush rally in Grinnell that I visited on Tuesday afternoon was a bit intimidating — Brownells, the world’s largest gun-parts manufacturer, is headquartered nearby — but the mood was cordial. With the exception of a woman taking pictures, I was the only black person in the room. My existence garnered some looks. They weren’t rude double-takes, more confused. When you find yourself in this familiar setting of the all-white, non-hostile room — a fly in the buttermilk — there’s an uncomfortable feeling of being constantly watched, while understanding that mostly, the looks simply mean “I haven’t seen a black person in real life in a long time.”
Watching Jeb in action, you can’t help but feel sympathetic. He’s like a character from a Greek tragedy: the child too bland to live up to the family name and too smart to live down to the family name. I was promised a rally, but there was neither pomp nor circumstance. Jeb is surprisingly professorial: The 45 minutes he had the floor felt like a lecture, with an audience of potential supporters who only showed signs of life when a key word left his mouth — guns, abortion, guns, Obama, guns, guns. He felt too capable to be dumbing himself down, but it was clear all he wanted was to be predictable enough to gain the approval of those in attendance.
As the crowd made their exit, most had a brief encounter with a staffer, asking if they wanted to sign up to support the campaign. Some obliged, but most performed the societally acceptable mannerisms that said “thanks but no thanks.” And then, just like that, it was over, almost as if it never happened.
The evening’s Trump rally was different.
Even before I made it inside, my anxiety was overwhelming. To my left, there was a line to walk in, and to my right, a group of students in the freezing cold protesting Trump. At Jeb’s event, we just walked into a warehouse, signed some sheets if we wanted, and walked toward Jeb. At Trump’s rally, we went through metal detectors, and there were police officers spread throughout. After presenting a ticket, and avoiding the registration table by way of faking a phone call, I made my way into the main room.
There was nowhere to hide. Ninety minutes before the scheduled start time, there were already about 100 people standing on the floor level. The rest of the crowd filed into the bleachers that wrapped around three sides of the gym. There was a designated press area on the floor, but I was without credentials.
I had no proof that my anxiety was justified. After all, why wouldn’t this crowd, who skewed toward grandparent age, go to see a presidential candidate when he rolls through town? But my initial group of five had whittled down to two, and every time I looked up in the rafters, I found someone whose eyes were locked in on me, causing me to look away. When that happened, I’d occupy myself with my phone or converse with my lone companion, partially to chat, primarily to be seen talking to someone white.
I couldn’t believe it: I was actively attempting to give off “I’m here with white people” vibes in order to erase some of the frowns I felt, the whispers I was sure were about me. Eventually, we located the rest of our group — they were up top. And not just off to the side, in the middle of a packed section.
The startling difference from the Jeb rally was the sheer number of people present for Trump: Easily over 1,000 in the rafters alone, with a growing crowd down below. Weaving my way through a section of bleachers, I alternated between smiling and looking down at my feet. That safety I felt at Jeb’s rally was no longer present: I was just a black guy at a Trump rally, and I knew people wanted to know what I was doing there — my intentions. Rock classics blared from the speakers — from Led Zeppelin’s “Communication Breakdown” to the Rolling Stones’ “She’s a Rainbow” to Elton John’s “Rocket Man.” I knew all these songs and mouthed the words to most in the hope that this demonstration of traditionally white knowledge might make me temporarily colorless. The attempt was futile, however, and I just went back to opening and closing apps on my phone.
I wanted to disappear, but I couldn’t. While I acknowledged that this all could have been in my head, I needed Trump to finally hit the stage. Then, just minutes before his entrance, an omnipotent voice came through the speakers:
“If a protester starts demonstrating in the area around you, please do not touch or harm the protester.” Laughter erupted in my section and throughout the venue.
I did a hard scan of the room from my balcony seat: Row by row, section by section. I couldn’t find one black or brown person. I took a picture and put it on Instagram, with the caption “when I find a second black person, I will hug them tight and never let go.”
An hour after watching Trump hit the stage to the tune of “Eye of the Tiger,” here she was. I didn’t know her specific background, but she kept pointing to her brown skin whenever she mentioned what was said to her. I asked if it was a fellow student who questioned why she was there and she replied that it was an “old person.” She mentioned that many of the students were present because teachers were giving extra credit for attendance. But it was clear that wasn’t the sole reason for her presence. “We moved to Iowa from Seattle when I was 11,” she said. Her family farmed, she worked on the farm, she worked with tractors — she was as Iowan as anyone in that room. And because of that, she felt she had an investment in what someone running for president had to say about her state, and perhaps her family’s livelihood.
Truthfully, I wanted to go find the old bully that said this to her. Why couldn’t someone have said that to me instead? As she was telling the story, she was fidgety. As we often do in times like this, she confronted mild trauma with humor, laughing off aspects of the encounter. Her response to the question was, “If by that do you mean do I look like the wrong color to support Donald Trump, then yes,” followed by a sarcastically half-bowed “why, thank you.”
After listing all the ways she was from Iowa — including aspects of farming that I’d never even heard of — she paused and then said, “but apparently I’m not authentic.”
Her story was the unfortunate — and predictable — coda to an evening spent listening to Trump easily instill (and reinforce) fear and distrust in thousands of people, not only about the direction of the country, but also about people who are “different.” He proudly gave a scriptless, teleprompter-free speech — on the grounds of I’m not like these other politicians — that consisted of sermonlike rambles punctuated by discriminatory preaches to the choir, many of which entailed getting the demographics of this country back to where they once were. Repeatedly, he’d hold press clippings in the air with the fervor of a minister controlling his congregation. Trump’s views for the future of America didn’t require detailed explanations, fact-checking, or empirical research to send the room into a frenzy. He simply presented options that allowed his followers to most comfortably suspend disbelief. Two days later, at the Republican debate in South Carolina, the GOP looked more like the party of Trump than ever.
Driving back to Des Moines, with President Obama’s State of the Union on the radio, I thought about the last 48 hours spent traversing Iowa, which felt like a microcosm of America. I’d been in the same room as some of Iowa’s most liberal and conservative citizens and listened to five presidential hopefuls — three Democrats and two Republicans — feed the people of Iowa the full spectrum of politics, from truth and hope to empty promises and fear. I’d listened to Sanders speak unfavorably of Clinton, Clinton make fun of Trump, Jeb speak ill on the entire Democratic party. But what I saw, and heard, and felt during two hours with Trump was a different beast: as real, as frightening, and as authentically American as it gets.