One afternoon in France this summer, I saw a man wearing a red baseball cap, branded with the slogan “Make America Great Again.” And a few days later, in Prague, I saw a few men on the street wearing the same cap, all in the same afternoon. One of the men in Prague even noticed me looking at his cap, which then committed him to eye contact.
One of the first mysteries I wanted to solve about these men was why, in Europe, they felt motivated to wear these caps. Where I currently live, in Appalachian Ohio, the cap makes sense—it’s something I’ve come to hate about Appalachian Ohio. But I wonder whether in Europe these men somehow felt emboldened to display their opinions on their heads, in what may have been a politically safe(r) space for them. By putting their politics on display for a world outside of the liberal American bubbles where their convictions might be under siege, maybe they gain an ounce of gumption. Maybe, like the “hipster Nazis” of Berlin who adopted an inconspicuous dress code to avoid being assaulted on the street, is it possible that the (American, I assume) men I saw in Europe had found a sweet spot for their political expression that doesn’t involve, at minimum, a public argument?
I see many red hats, though now I always look twice to see if they sport an infamous slogan. There are probably millions of red caps around the world, in fact, but since 2016 I’ve paid more attention to what these caps say. A red cap alone is innocuous, but lately I’ve wondered whether and how its innocence can be reclaimed.
Last month in Charlottesville, Virginia, a local 32-year-old woman named Heather Heyer was killed by a driver who sped into a group of counter-protesters at a Nazi and alt-right rally. Nineteen others were injured by the same car that hit Ms. Heyer.
The night before, a variety of white supremacists descended on the University of Virginia’s campus in a demonstration the day ahead of Charlottesville’s “Unite the Right” rally. What seemed like hundreds of white men carried torches and Nazi and Confederate flags as they marched, chanting in baritone unison: “You. Will not. Replace us.” Eventually they clashed with counter-protesters, battering them with their torches and fists until police, only after watching a while, disarmed those involved with mace and pepper spray.
Charlottesville is not in Europe. It’s a five-hour drive from my apartment, which makes these events even more uncomfortable for me than they might otherwise be. Because I’ve been living in Europe for the past three months, I’ve been able to distance myself somewhat from American news; now that I’ve returned, my finger is much closer to this country’s pulse. My news feeds have been populated by headlines and the reactions of friends and family, but I find myself muted, stripped of a voice that should easily have something to say about how it feels to return to this country in this particular moment. It’s possible I don’t know what to say because my feelings are knotted: I live in the United States, but as a person of color I must acknowledge the fact that strangers who hate me have taken off their red or white hoods and, for some of these strangers, they’ve replaced the hoods with khaki pants, white polo shirts, and red baseball caps. This is not the new face of an enemy, I must tell myself—not just because I haven’t sought enemies in this contemporary crusade, but because I cannot bring myself to the same depths of fear, anger, and isolation that I imagine those men now feel. So, I brace myself for the fact that the red caps are coming, and I imagine what to look out for next.
In France, the fact that black people exist seems to make sense as a fact of life, while some white Americans (even those in cities) seem to imagine themselves asking blacks the question: Why are you even here? Our existence in this country is a mystery to some—which, with any knowledge of U.S. history, should come as a mystery of its own. France has many melanin-filled natives and immigrants (with a storied politics deserving many essays of its own), but their presence never seems questioned like it is in the U.S. This is an American mentality I’ve never been able to understand. Now, even decades after having grown up here, I still do not understand.
Others wanting me exiled makes sense in places far away. For example, in a small town called Beroun, about a half hour drive from Prague, I walked along the street one winter afternoon with Alex, a local friend. As we walked, a man drove by in his car, yelling something at us in Czech. Alex was wide-eyed and still after the car zoomed by—at first he didn’t say a word, but when I asked what the man had yelled he translated: “He asked, ‘Did you come from the Devil?’”
This same desired exile does not make sense in places like where I live in Ohio, where on another walk down the street last summer a man in a pickup truck drove by me with his window down and, without a sound, looked me in the eye then pointed to the Confederate flag on his driver’s side door. He may have looked at me in silence, but his pointing gave his message the volume it needed. If put into words, his message might read: You are not wanted here.
Although the symbols these men have worn and carried have often been matters of national insecurity, this insecure state seems to be both an origin and a destination. The frightened men have migrated from the red of the Nazi flag to the red of their baseball cap, but the meaning behind their rouge décor still shows a silent kind of bubbling, a feeling unexpressed in full, until these men end up carrying it above their heads en masse across a Southern university’s campus.
I can’t stop imagining the symbolic future of red caps, or, even, khaki pants. Red alone is harmless (right?), but I keep turning my head as I pass people on the street who wear the color on their own heads. And I think maybe it isn’t purely a reactionary paranoia, but an ardent search for a symbol I’ve taught myself how to be on guard from. Perhaps, as Rich Cohen discusses in his essay “Becoming Adolf,” in which he shaves his beard then wears a “Hitler mustache” around New York City for a week to gauge others’ reactions, I’m looking somehow for an inversion of this—a reaction to my own reaction of the “Make America Great Again” cap, should I lay my eyes on it.
The inquiry behind Cohen’s experiment, as he writes: “Did the mustache affect history, or was it just a matter of style? Did it attach itself to a person and drive him crazy? Was the man in charge, or was the mustache calling the shots?” Has the red cap driven me crazy? Has it attached itself to my gaze, in that I cannot give it a passive first glance? Have I taken things too far by wondering what, at least in my future, it will become?
I imagine many Americans in the South now perform similar cognitive gymnastics around Confederate flags and statues. Especially as they begin to be removed from public sight, the statues’ ability to echo dwindles. Memes and tweets say things about how they belong in museums and not on the streets—but museums, we know, are made to hold our past. So, a direct conflict here is that those who wish to carry Confederate symbols into the future oppose what others call “progress,” an opposition almost certainly derived from the imagined extinction of oneself and one’s “kind.” And who should not be afraid of this? If rhetoric and propaganda tell you that you will soon be washed away, would you not fight to survive?
This is not a defense, but a way to point out that a number of these problems are tied to our questions around history—both in our past, and that which unfolds now under our noses. Many survivors, veterans, and victims have said that a dark history they’ve already seen firsthand will not make its return now, and they fight to prevent a repetition of things we know shouldn’t have happened in the first place.
But what does it mean for the future? What can we actually do with our conversations about museums and memorials? Can we, with tact, distinguish between artifact and assault weapon?
Cohen knew, at risk to his own mental togetherness, that the looks he got from New York City’s strangers would be reactive in sometimes palpably offended ways, sometimes in more nebulous, confused ways—or, even once, in a way that had a man raise his hand in a salute. But what Cohen also realized was that once the mustache-symbol began to tarnish our sense of how it would exist in our collective past and future, the future would win out in deciding the mustache’s power. It didn’t matter for how long, Cohen writes, “or how casually, or how sarcastically I wore the mustache, it still belonged to Hitler. You cannot claim it, or own it, or clean it as a drug lord cleans money. Because it’s too dirty. Because it’s soaked up too much history. It’s his, and, as far as I’m concerned, he can keep it. When you wear the toothbrush mustache, you are wearing the worst story in the world right under your nose.” We can debate the world’s worst story, but we cannot debate that the mustache has no current chance of a career comeback. It’s a soiled-enough image that our own U.S. presidents have been clean-shaven for decades—they know what it means for a man with a mustache to reach for political power.
So I wonder about the cap because, as innocently as it may have begun, I’m anxious about when I’ll finally get to stop taking second glances. Anxious about when, or if, I’ll get to tell myself that red’s innocence has been reclaimed. I don’t know for how much longer I can keep my eyes peeled for a loyal opposition that wants to hide, even partially, in plain sight.
The night after the UVA march, the day of the rally, I met a friend at an ’80s and ’90s music-themed dance club in downtown Charlotte. When I arrived, I had some trouble figuring out how to feel about the white people dancing all around me. Although the TVs around us played music videos instead of the news, as many establishments would, I kept thinking that I didn’t know how much of the night’s events had been on their minds, has they’d been on mine. I didn’t know who did or didn’t hate me, or who was just there to replace one moral complexity with another via distraction, but I did know one thing: I knew that even if I didn’t hate them, even if I wasn’t afraid of them, I didn’t trust them. I didn’t trust that, had I wanted to bring up the weekend’s events in conversation with someone, such a conversation would’ve gotten anywhere. I didn’t trust that my confusion wouldn’t be treated as hostility, or that this perception wouldn’t breed hostility from the receiving end. I didn’t trust, for the most part, that those dancing white people could possibly feel as fixated on what had happened during the weekend as I did, and therefore I couldn’t sense that they even cared.
This moment had me think of something I’d once heard about James Baldwin’s lack of hatred for white people. Trying to echo his voice in my head made me imagine him saying something about how he could never hate white people because they gave us figures like Mozart and Beethoven. From my own end I’ve appreciated the cinema, pizza, and hockey, and plenty of other quotidian contributions given to the world by white inventors. But appreciating these inventions doesn’t let me, or any of us, off the hook in thinking about the invention of whiteness itself, which had to be born from the invention of otherness.
“In order to really hate white people,” Baldwin had actually said, “one has to blot so much out of the mind—and the heart—that this hatred itself becomes an exhausting and self-destructive pose”:
But this does not mean, on the other hand, that love comes easily: the white world is too powerful, too complacent, too ready with gratuitous humiliation, and, above all, too ignorant and too innocent for that. One is absolutely forced to make perpetual qualifications and one’s own reactions are always canceling each other out. It is this, really, which has driven so many people mad, both black and white.
In thinking about what Baldwin might tie to ignorance and innocence, I can admit that maybe I have been driven a little mad in thinking about a color—in thinking about complacence in a bar where everyone, myself included, sings the Spice Girls’ “Wannabe” at the tops of their lungs. But I’m also making “perpetual qualifications” in looking out for an “innocent” red, especially because it’s a color I myself love and often wear.
I suppose the question for now, then, is whether love can come easily. I’ve loved red nearly my whole life, probably for just as long as I’ve loved white people. Currently skepticism, though, rather than love, is at the forefront, and I want these mentalities switched back as soon as possible. I want no more qualifications—because love, no matter the color to which it’s tied, should be able to qualify itself.