This story is part of ELLE’s America Redefined series. To read the full series, click here.
As I made the turn onto South Superior, the major strip, Albion looked like a Hollywood set. The streets were literal redbrick roads. A railroad in the middle of the street, with a bright RxR sign. There was an old-school drug store with a register with big letters and numbers. The yellow caution lines on the road were still… yellow. And not a litter in sight.
Nicole checked me in at the Marriott. She was a student at Albion College. She had a soothing voice. I was mostly delirious and pretty sure my sentences weren’t adding up, still waking up from driving from Detroit after flying into Michigan from Miami.
She referred me to Lopez Taco House, a Mexican restaurant down the block, for sustenance. As I walked past Foxy Nails (“Walk Ins Ok”) I saw a Black man walking out of the restaurant with a lot of brown bags. As he got into his red Hyundai, I did one of those awkward half-waves and walked up to his passenger window. My body asked for permission to lean in with a weird index point at the open window and a slight lean into the car. He just stared at me. Cocked his head my way. (So…yes?)
He had long dreads. A few broken teeth. I pointed to the bags of food he’d just placed on the passenger seat and floor. “Are they any good? I just got into town.” He nodded. And then nothing.
“Dinner for the family?”
His name is Raveela. He looked to be about mid-40s, with dark skin.
“I love your name!” I told him.
“I don’t even know where my mom found it. She probably made it up. I think I’m the only one with it.”
I hoped Raveela didn’t just drive away because I was now leaning into this man’s car like I was trying to pick him up. It was weird. But he was talking. We were talking!
I asked about his year.
“I’m pissed off,” he told me, about everything that has gone down. “What can we do about it? We can’t do shit. We could never do shit. The only thing I could do now is take care of my kids.” He had seven.
“What kind of conversations are you having with them? About George Floyd, Jacob Blake… about this year?”
“I don’t even know. It’s a lot of us dying. We just fucked, man. That’s how I look at it. We just take care of us.”
When he’d stop talking, he’d look away and out his windshield. But I could still see he was thinking. Or maybe he was wondering why this chick was bothering him.
But he kept talking. “I’m not fucking with Joe Biden or Trump,” he said when I asked if he followed politics. “All I could say is, we take care of our people, you know what I’m saying?” Mm-hmm. “My wife white,” he continued. “We got mixed kids, and she vote but I don’t vote.” I never asked about his wife or her race.
“Who do you think your wife would vote for?”
“Oh, she a Trump fan!” he said, without a thought. “Ain’t no conflict cause we just don’t talk about it.”
“Man, as long as I could just work, and keep on working and pay for my insurance. My 401K and all of that. And I know my kids would be taken care of, I’m good.”
Lopez Taco House was popping. Take-out only. Lines out the door.
I got the chicken quesadilla, then watched the woman working the counter, Diane, go from one end of the restaurant to another. Three other women worked in the back.
Diane had a pixie cut streaked with brown and blonde that shaped her round face well. I waited for her to catch her breath—she was fielding orders from the phone and the growing line.
Diane finally came for my card. “How do you say that?”
My ten-letter-intimidating Nigerian first name.
“Oh wow. Where are you from?”
“New York…Oh, you mean my name?”
Later, when the line died down, I asked Diane for recommendations on what to do in Albion. As she called out to the ladies in the back to come aid me in this important decision, I noticed a large Trump banner in front of a “Washer and Dryer” business out the window. Is that common around here? I asked Diane. I could tell this was something she either wasn’t comfortable with or hadn’t given much thought.
She gave half a headshake. “Well, I really don’t know much about that. Erica! Erica!” She called out. “Erica knows more about all of that politics stuff!”
The line had subsided. A few brown bags sat waiting to be picked up.
Erica walked out from the back kitchen. Her dark hair was pulled in a bun. She had tired eyes, like me. She looked mixed. Maybe Latina and white?
Diane said she was going to vote “Republican.”
Do you always vote that way? I asked her.
“I don’t know much about, what, Biden? Yeah, no, I don’t know much about him.”
Erica said she was probably not voting because of what happened to her in 2016: “I couldn’t figure out where I was supposed to vote.” She had a Midwest/Southern hybrid drawl. “So I went to Saint John’s”—she turned to face Diane—“then I went to the Goodrich Chapel. And then I was like ‘Oh my god, my address was at Brandy’s house so that Kaylee could go to Homer School,’ right?”
“Well, I don’t agree with just, like, mail-in ballots,” Diane said. “What if they’re like, ‘Oh, I don’t want Trump’ and throw out all the ballots away? I’ve heard a lot of people say that!”
The next morning, I had no plan. I walked residential streets, looked for people to talk to. I wore my go-to green-and-white polka-dot silk maxi dress, off-white Allbirds, and my burnt orange backpack—the Canon over my neck. I snapped every other step. This town didn’t feel real. Every picture was perfect. I went like this for about fifteen or so minutes before a loud brum brum brum brrrrrrrr got my attention.
As I got closer, I expected to see construction workers. I was so wrong: It was a huggable grandma. I admired the badassery that I was witnessing. Her sandy hair was up in a messy bun, and her gloved hands pushed the falling strands away from her face. She had on knee-length cargo shorts and a lime tank. Obsessed. There was no way I was not going to get all up in her business. She was out there going at her lawn and little trees. Wielding an electric hedge trimmer like a pro.
I introduced myself.
“My name’s Rita too!” she said.
“No it’s not!” I said.
“It is! It is! It’s Rita!” she said, almost in tandem.
“Stop, Rita! I can’t!”
Neither could she. We ride this moment in high-pitched exclamations. The excitement must’ve annoyed the man across the street on his lawn chair.
I imagined her being that grandma who would sneak candy to her grand-babies before dinner. The kindness and sweetness just oozed out of her, down to her soft, sweet tone. “Come over here!” she beckoned me towards the side of the house. I towered over her petite frame—at most, 5-foot. Her head tilted back to look up the white vinyl siding of the home her parents had owned since the 1960s. When her mom was alive, they used to work on the roof gutter together. Her mom would hold the ladder for Rita as she climbed up and cleaned it out. Her mom passed away four years ago at 93.
She knew a lot about a lot. All it took was me asking her about her year. What she thought. Her brother hadn’t been doing too well, she started. He had a lot of pre-existing conditions, so he hadn’t been by in a while. She missed him. He used to help her with all this yard stuff.
She was for Biden, but she was careful who she talked to about that choice. “I could be talking and then the people I’m talking to admit that they’re for the other guy,” she said. She came a little closer to me. I leaned in.
“I am so sad,” she said. “What a liar Trump is. And, if he had acted sooner with this COVID-19, we would have been just like the Europeans. We would have been able to trace better right. But now, with over 200,000 dead souls.”
I was curious about how she felt about all the protesting. George Floyd. Breonna Taylor. Jacob Blake was the most recent national headliner at that point. “Ohhh my gosh, you know what? You know what?” She would drag and punctuate certain words. And at times, she’d repeat a word a few times. I could’ve stayed in her yard all day. “What these police have done to that poor George. For close to nine minutes, not letting him breathe?”
“And for that other guy that ran away, he was gonna go into his car with his kids in his car? And then, he shot him in the back? And yet that guy is optimistic. He’s gonna live for his children.” What’s the solution to all of that? It seems to be happening more often than not, no? “I think it’s the way the person has been brought up or has changed to. They have to put themselves in their shoes. Everybody is the same.”
A few hours later, after walking the full length of Superior, I came back to a place called Malleable, which Nicole, at the Marriott, had told me served burgers named best in Michigan.
As I entered, someone waved at me. Who knows me in Albion?
It was Nicole. I hadn’t seen her face the night before, and now she was maskless with two friends. I walked over. We dived right into small talk about my day. How I was liking Albion. Where did I go? All I saw and could think about was their messy fries—they looked heavenly.
“What’s good here?”
“The burgers!” they said in unison—her and her two friends, Courtney and Raksha. Nicole and Courtney, both fair white, worked there part-time. Courtney was a senior at Albion, like Nicole, and a political science major. She was trying for law school. Raksha, an international student from Bangladesh, recently graduated from the college.
I settled next to Courtney and we all dive right in like old friends.
Courtney’s mom recently told a family friend, “‘She’s a liberal!’” The family friend then told Courtney, “Oh, that’ll change as you get older.”
“I said, ‘No, because I like human rights,’” she said. Those basic rights, she told her family, were the whole point of America in the first place. “To be united as one. But we’re not united as one. We’re separated by poverty and systemic racism and gender inequality. All of that.”
Courtney came across as the alpha in the crew. Nicole reminded her about another recent chat she had with her family. “You got into it with your family, when they said, ‘How does only Black lives matter?’” They told Courtney that she was wrong because all lives matter.
“I feel ashamed,” Courtney said, shifting her red crop-top hoodie as she thought some more about what it was like to be white in America. “Yeah, it’s a privilege to be white, but it’s also shameful. I try to voice my opinions as loud as I possibly can when I can,” she said. Her biggest fear was implicit bias. “To where our implicit bias is saying, ‘Oh, [Black people] are poor,’ or, ‘They can’t afford what we can,’” she said.
Nicole nodded hard to this. “It’s like, once you go to jail once, you’re basically set up to fail again. Especially people of color, at this point.” There’s a book on it. She can’t remember and turns to Courtney who’s across from her. “What is it? Punisher?”
“Punished. Where it talks about the prison pipeline for just specifically Black children, Black teens, Black students growing up, and they’re kind of labeled as thugs, criminals.”
“You’re basically setting up for failure,” Nicole added. “So they embrace that. They take on that role. They act on it. And then that’s what they’re seen as. And, they already have a target on their back. They’re so many examples!”
Nicole was all in it now. I saw her fire coming out.
“They’re bound to go to jail. And then when they come out of the system, they’re not set up to succeed. They can’t vote. They have to stay at home.”
“They’re felons now and they can’t work anywhere!”
“So the system just set you up to just fail.”
I nodded and mm-hmmed as I watched and listened to them go back and forth.
Courtney was heated now and got into Lori Loughlin, who got to choose whatever prison facility she wanted to go to for her two-month sentence. Courtney threw up her hands.
“There are literally Black mothers and Latinx mothers and just people-of-color mothers, in general, who go to jail or prison for four years for lying about where they live in order to get their kids into a better school system. In a safer environment, better school system to set them up to succeed. And they don’t get to choose where they go to jail.”
The restaurant was pretty empty. The exposed, fading bricks ahead looked intentional—modern rustic. There was this large mirror by the bar, and chalked-up menu of the day to its left. The wait staff congregated amongst themselves at different ends of the bar. A few clinks and clanks filled the air.
Raksha, and her pretty shiny glitter makeup and “Barbie” bright-pink sweatshirt, catch my eye. She’d been quiet. Courtney asks her, “What do you think?”
She spoke about parties she had been to in the past. “People would stare at me, like, ‘Oh my god, where are you from? Or are you Mexican? Or are you mixed?’” The only difference between the two countries is that the discrimination in India comes in the form of colorism, she said. Growing up, her grandma told her if she ever wanted to get married, she’d have to bleach her olive skin. “I came here thinking I would have a better life but I just see the way women are treated here, too. Or people of color.”
“Do you think it’s because being white it’s like, seen as powerful, back in India?” Courtney asked about the bleaching.
“Oh for sure! If you’re fair-skin or from the north, that means that you’re superior to someone that’s not.” There are derogatory words, too, for people of color there.
“Just like here,” Nicole chimed in, with an exhausted laugh.
“Being friends with you guys,” Raksha continued, “I feel like you guys are to my first white friends ever. Because I just feel kinda scared to even, like, talk to a white person because of what they would think of me.”
After I ordered (the Boomer, a burger with sauteed mushrooms, smoked bacon, parmesan cheese frico, and garlic aioli; no onions), I felt eyes on us.
A waitress has just clocked out and was sitting at the bar behind us. She called Courtney over to ask who I was. What were we talking about? Where is she from? Courtney brought her over to the table. We did the whole pleasantries thing. She almost couldn’t hold it back and bursted: “So, I saw you walking down Superior earlier, and I saw that dress, and I said, ‘She’s somebody!’” She turned her head with a light attitude, like, “Girl that dress gave me life!”
Her name was Donisha. Her eyes went into a pretty almond squint when she laughed. We transitioned from the dress to, well, everything else. She was an instant sister-friend. At first she was reserved. She picked her words carefully. Then, minutes into it, she let loose and is like, “Listen, this year has been a year.”
She ran an after-school youth program at the movie theater, for young boys. She later schooled me on the city too. Albion is about 30 percent Black, a population she was part of, with an average household income of less than $27,000. This school year had a little bit of drama, already. Albion started busing some of their Black students over to Marshall, one town over. “Marshall is ninety-percent white and a bit more on the affluent side,” she said. The Marshall parents were against it because “‘they’re afraid it will bring down the city’s value.’”
She went on about the micro-aggressions she’d experienced while living in Albion and working as a waitress. She’d heard guests say, “She’s one who went to college, you can tell,” as she walked away from their table. When she lived in Ludington, a small town up north, Michigan, the racism she experienced was way more in her face. One time, someone said, “You look like Whoopi Goldberg. Isn’t she dead now?”
Then there was the time someone told her, “‘There are two types of Black women: bitchy Black women and church Black women and you’re a church Black woman. I can tell you were raised around white people.’”
And there’s nothing people of color can do to make those things go away, she said. “It’s white people who have to make sure they are relaying that message to other white people and holding each other accountable. Because when we protest peacefully, when we kneel, when we have our hands up, when we’re complying, we still die. We’re still victims. And then people are like, well, you shouldn’t play the victim. When will this victim game be over? Nobody wants to be a victim. Victims don’t want to be in that situation. If the things that make us victims stop happening, then we will quit being victims.”
As she went deeper, her round face grew serious, but her eyes squinted into a smile here and there. When the clicks and clanks of the plates got louder, we went to the outdoor picnic tables.
Donisha wanted to have hope, “But then something else happens,” she said. “And I have never felt anger before. I thought I did—I thought I was angry. But then there were times where, one shooting after another—every day you hear about another man or woman of color who was shot in police custody, with no weapons. Every day you hear these stories of injustice, and not necessarily only to people of color, but people who primarily live in poverty stricken areas.”
She was trying to be intentional about her actions. About how to get ahead of these incidents. How to stop reacting. “During COVID, we got time to sit and think and deal with our emotions and figure out, how is it that all these Black men are continuously shot and then we forget about it?”
And that brought the anger.
“As a Black woman—”, she started, but then took a beat. She got serious and stopped with the small laughs she had been adding to her comments.
“It’s our duty to protect Black men.” She looked to the side, and back at me. Like: Listen here, this is serious. And I listened. More closely. My burger arrived, and it smelled delicious. I tried not to look at it.
“I feel like anything that I can do to uplift them, protect them, motivate them and keep them going—that’s a burden on us. But it’s not as heavy as the burden they carry every day when they walk down the street. And I think, as a woman, our responsibility is to make sure that they thrive and understand who they really, truly are.” That’s what gave her hope. When she felt angry or hopeless, she re-channeled that energy to that space of, What is my duty as a Black woman?