In a term abounding with profane language, Donald Trump saved his most bitter remark for immigrants. You likely remember the comment. “Why are we having all these people from s—hole countries come here?” Trump asked in a closed-door 2018 meeting with mostly Republican senators, as reported by The Washington Post later that day.
He went on to identify Haiti, El Salvador and Africa as the countries in question – never mind that Africa is a continent – and he reserved special animus for Haiti. “Why do we need more Haitians?” he asked, according to people familiar with the meeting. “Take them out.”
Trump would later claim he never used the s-word, but Raj Shah, then a spokesman for the White House, did not deny the slur, and when Jesse Watters, a co-host of Fox News’ “The Five,” considered Trump’s tirade, he embraced it as a populist manifesto. “I think it’s either fake news, or if it’s true, this is how the forgotten men and women in America talk at the bar,” Watters gushed.
I had a different reaction. To me, Trump’s descriptor dehumanised several million individual lives, and it carried a troubling logic: If Haiti, El Salvador and African countries could be dismissed with an expletive, why worry about their fates as countries, or about how their problems have been caused partly by US policy?
As an travel writer, I try to regard other nations as hopeful places filled with intriguing surprises. But arguably, as an American travel writer I was a little complicit in Trump’s insolence. Though I’d visited 30-odd countries, I’d never been to Haiti or El Salvador, and my travels in Africa had been tentative, cautious. The president had denigrated places that even I deemed too broken for tourism. As he often does, he’d stirred the pot with an assertion rooted not in facts, but in something deeper: a widely held fear.
What if I responded to the president by packing my suitcase? Wasn’t it time for somebody to take the “S—hole” World Tour? I developed a plan. I’d travel to Haiti, El Salvador and an African country to gauge how Trump’s insult registered. I’d seek out, too, the complexity and the beauty that all slurs ignore – and I wouldn’t just do this to push against Trump’s worldview. I’d also do it for my own sake. Isn’t the whole point of travel to go deep into the culture of a place, and then to return home feeling that you’ve enlarged and brightened your own small world?
It was Liberian discontent with Doe that spurred the nation’s first civil war. “Even the way Liberians see themselves has been shaped by the U.S.,” Burrowes, the historian, tells me. “So far, our scholars haven’t escaped that – they’ve simply parroted what others have written. How do you escape? HipCo artists are finding a way. They are unapologetically seeing themselves through their own eyes. They’ve found a way to tell their stories.”
One scorching evening, Forte and I find ourselves on the patio at 146, drinking beer and waiting for Takun. He’s inside at the bar. Ten minutes ago, he promised to come chat about the birthing of written Kolokwa. A few days earlier, though, he spoke skeptically of Forte, suggesting that he’d taken too long to solicit the HipCo community for input on the dictionary. “We’re the ones who got all this started,” he said.
Forte and I are facing a mural Takun commissioned. Labeled “Legends Never Die,” it features a pantheon of black heroes: Nelson Mandela,Haile Selassie, Malcolm X and Takun himself. “Why are there no women up there?” Forte asks. “Is he going to put women on the opposite wall?”
We wait. I want this meeting between Takun and Forte to come together. I want Kolokwa force to gather and grow seamlessly, without a hitch, as it propels Liberia toward a bright future. But this may be too much to wish for. Every moment here is complicated by history, and perhaps all you can hope for in Liberia is that hope stays alive. Forte does not despair. After maybe 45 minutes, his tone softens. “I’ll come talk to Takun when it’s less busy,” he says. “I need to do that. We need to understand one another.”
When we amble back inside, passing the bar en route to the exit, Takun sees us and bathes us in his celebrity smile. Just the way he stands there glowing – there’s a performer’s grace to it, a nimbleness that lowly, unassuming writers like Forte and me can’t even touch.
Takun hugs Forte. He sounds a couple of glancing positive remarks about Forte’s Kolokwa endeavours – “I like it; let’s work together” – and then Forte and I float out through the alley, our feet pattering in the puddles. “I’m feeling so hopeful,” Forte says, foreseeing a collaboration with Takun. “I cannot afford to be anything but optimistic.”
When I land in New York, it’s early morning. I flick on my backup phone, and then I decide to dive headlong into American reality. I navigate to @realDonaldTrump on Twitter. The first tweet I encounter reads, “The White House is running very smoothly. … We are the envy of the world.”
I wonder how far I have really traveled from the viper’s den of Liberian politics. As I head down the long corridors of the airport, I find myself humming the Takun J tune “They Lie.” “I sayayaaa, they lie. They can lie. They can steal. They can connive.”
I think, too, of something that Burrowes said about HipCo artists: “With no resources save for their talent, they’ve created something out of nothing.” Couldn’t this be said of every person I met on my trip – of the HipCo pioneers, and the chefs in Haiti, and the sculptors and filmmakers and painters in El Salvador?
The president reviled all of these people with one ugly phrase, and they refused to be defamed. Instead, they speak. They create. How can I not be inspired? I feel hallowed, really, to have connected, all over the globe, with artists working in difficult straits. And as I step into the long line at immigration control, I’m resolved to keep these connections alive. Even if we never step outside the States, aren’t we obliged to stay open to the possibilities offered us by all peoples, all cultures?
The line snakes between the crowd-control stanchions. The low din of the multitudes fills the high-ceillinged hall. Eventually the customs officer summons me to the window and flips open my passport to give me the once-over. He compares the photo against the weary traveller standing before him. Then I hear the hard chonk of his rubber stamp hitting my passport. Outside the sun is climbing in the sky. “Welcome home,” he says.
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