My barber’s shop is painted cornflower blue – those European floral invaders so common now in both my home countries, South Africa and the United States, they have become a kind of default simile.
Blue is also, of course, the hue of the US Democratic Party. But my 30-year-old, mocha-complexioned, small-town Puerto Rican barber, Esteban, is no Democrat. This year he voted for the first time in his adult life, for Donald Trump.
“On my first try I saw my man win,” he told me last week, as he trimmed my hair.
We live in Sunbury, Pennsylvania, an old coal town out of a picture book, settled in the 19th century by Germans and Italians. A white-steeple, Italianate courthouse, built in 1865, faces a green, leafy square.
On Market Street you’ll the charity shops, hotdog store, tattoo parlour, and a low-income housing project in the world’s first electrified commercial building.
Look up high and you’ll see splendid bracketed cornices and frescoes that testify to Gilded Age elegance. Elders talk about the old opera house, now a hardware store. But the boarded-up windows and empty rooms along the middle storeys tell a tale of decline.
In 1950, almost 16,000 people lived here. Today, just 9,600 call this place home.
I teach creative writing at a university 15 minutes’ drive away. That, too, provides an archetypal scene, ivy-covered walls, classrooms and lecture halls, shady walkways.
The predominant architectural colour of this campus is red, fire-brick and terracotta. In the spring, the bright magenta of tulip beds frame entrance portals. Yet the institutional culture could not be bluer, and not just because students protested against Trump in the week after the election.
The university’s mission statement commits it to the pursuit of knowledge. On the campaign trail Trump talked about loving uneducated people.
Our new science building has a carbon footprint of close to zero; the Republican Party considers climate science a hoax.
Our award-winning Global Opportunities programme forces students out of their cultural comfort zones, so they become more aware of how their own culture has shaped them For example, I regularly bring groups of students back with me to South Africa, for rural, tribal home stays.
Few of my blue-collar, Red-State neighbours have ever been to New York City, three hours’ drive away. One neighbour asked me if I felt any different when I returned to South Africa, because of the extra blood sinking from my legs down to my head.
Growing up white under apartheid, in the Kruger National Park, the colours shifted most dramatically during the work day. From nine to five, our Skukuza staff village would become, in effect, a multicultural hub, albeit a stratified one. Black and white pedestrians waved at each other on the street. Swazi, Mozambican, or Malawian maids and gardeners served families with names like Botha and Van der Merwe.
At nights and on weekends, though, the black people vanished, either to shantytowns in the Bantustans or to their own fenced compound.
A broadly similar dynamic structures my current life, except that it’s the Red-Staters, the vocal Trump supporters or “townies” that commute with me to trim the Blue University’s gingko trees, fix its plumbing, and clean the students’ and professors’ passageways and bathrooms – to serve the “gownies”. When they leave, the campus becomes subtly bluer, periwinkle shading towards cerulean.
I spent Election Day morning in Sunbury, canvassing townies for Hillary Clinton. I got myself invited into a one-room house with an obese white man sitting in a lone armchair, next to a chipped and broken formica dining table, which was propped right next to his bed. A “Make America Great Again” cap lay on his pillow.
“Oh, sorry, you have the wrong address,” he said – there were plenty of errors that morning in the Democratic National Committee’s supposedly state-of-the-art database. But I might have been in a South African township matchbox house.
Injured veterans in wheelchairs waited in line at the voting station. One retired woman, who hobbled on a cane, said she hadn’t voted since Kennedy in 1960. With record turnout, our county went three to one for Trump.
That night I visited a large, beautiful house, much like my own, for an election party hosted by a colleague. The academics there, all of us immigrants or members of racial or ethnic minorities, watched in growing terror, unsure if we were witnessing the dawn of a new fascism of walls, influx control, dissident arrests, and mass deportations.
Scrawled swastikas appeared later that week on my campus. At a community forum, black and LGBTQ+ students talked of being terrified of walking or driving into the towns, for fear of hate crimes or bias-related harassment.
The people who scare them, my neighbours who drive bakkies with Confederate flag bumper stickers and gun racks, for their part often look at the university-attending rainbow nation with longing.
“I would have loved nothing more than to go to college,” says my housemate, who grew up nearby and whose family and friends are all dyed-in-the-wool Republicans. “We couldn’t afford it. I didn’t know anyone who could.”
Of course there are exceptions to the colour-casting. Blue-voting African-American students at my workplace often come from backgrounds at least as economically deprived as those of my red-voting neighbours. Trump had no shortage of rich supporters; in the days after his election the stock market rose 3%. A minority of students and faculty at my school do identify as conservative.
Yet for now this is how we move forward, in swing-state, rural Pennsylvania. Red versus blue, both groups to some degree multiracial. Talking to each other at lunch counters, trading jokes over Thanksgiving dinners, parrying each other’s intersecting fears and vulnerabilities.
All of us seem quite stunned at what has happened to us, and none of us have any real idea what our new future will bring. DM
Glen Retief is an Associate Professor of nonfiction writing at Susquehanna University. His The Jack Bank: A Memoir of a South African Childhood won a Lambda Literary Award.
Photo: Confluence of the North and West branches of the Susquehanna rivers, near Sunbury, Pennsylvania, by Chris Phan via Flickr
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