My name is Chad Billings and I write for a very reputable magazine, The Republic Rag. I grew up in a middle-class neighborhood in a three-bedroom, two-bath split-level ranch, where I lived with my sister Martha (Marty for short). My parents were not divorced. My father worked at IBM like everyone else, which allowed my mother to stay home and take care of things until "the kids" were out of school. Then, she resumed her job as a clerk for the town. I went to a good college and worked as hard as I could to get this job writing journalism. I did not play basketball or any other sports.
Here's the plot twist: I'm black.
When Hillary Clinton contacted me to do a feature piece on her, I was thrilled … until I met her. She probably chose our magazine because of its pro-woman, pro-black, pro-underdog, pro-anything-but-big-business-Republicans. I figured she wanted to reach out to out demographic.
This is where start shaking my head, literally and figuratively.
I was invited to her campaign headquarters in Brooklyn I do the interview, knowing I was writing perhaps the biggest, most important piece of my life. I walked in and was greeted by a white assistant. I know he was white not just because I saw the color of his skin, but because Mrs. Clinton reminded of the fact: "See, we don't do no racist hiring in here. Not here, uh-uh, child."
I stopped dead in my tracks and looked at her. I expected her to turn around, slap me on the shoulder, crack up laughing, and say, "I'm just kidding."
But she didn't. I told myself not too judge prematurely. After all, she was from Arkansas. Maybe this was how she actually spoke when the microphones weren't in her face, in more relaxed moments. I told myself to move on. Then she took me into the conference room where she had prepared a lunch of "the bestest ribs in Brooklyn," chicken she "had got down the block," and an array of greens, black-eyed peas. I sure you could guess what was on tap for dessert: watermelon. I pinched myself, literally. I scoped out the room for TV cameras, thinking I might be on one of those practical joke shows.
No such luck. She handed me a plate, grabbed one for herself, filled it and then said, "Ooo lawdy, where's my bag?" She found her bag and pulled out a bottle of hot sauce. Having lost my appetite, I put my plate down. "You ain't eatin' child?"
"Not very hungry, thank you," I began, and then had to ask her, at the risk of sounding rude: "Do you actually carry a bottle of hot sauce all the time?"
"I keep hot sauce in my bag, swag," the presidential hopeful exclaimed. As she doused the "bestest ribs" in town in hot sauce, proclaiming, "Hot sauce. Yes, yes."
As a journalist, there are times when you have to look past the immediate situation and focus on the task at hand. I tried to focus on politics. "So, Mrs. Clinton, this election schedule must be quite demanding. How are you holding up?"
"I ain't nowheres tired, I came too far from where I started from. Nobody, told me that the road would be easy, but I don't believe he brought me this far to leave me," she said through a mouthful of barbecued pork, her fingers covered in the red glaze.
Initially, I was going to leave her questionable relations with the African-American community in the past where it certainly belongs (like in the Confederate South actually), but after the "hot sauce incident" I decided to bring it up. "Mrs. Clinton," I cleared my throat, "in 1994, your husband introduced the Violent Crime and Law Enforcement Act. This act affected the African-American and Latino communities the most. This bill took lesser crimes and upgraded them to felonies, there was a mandatory "three-strike" rule and it released a greater number of police officers onto the streets. Some say this was because prisons had been privatized and more prisoners, specifically African-American male youths, were needed to fill the cells of these privatized prisons. What are your thoughts on that perception?"
Clinton threw a bone picked clean of all its meat on her plate and grabbed another. After another bite, she looked at me mournfully. "Child," she said, "you sure do talk fancy with all them book-learning words. I'se proud of you, but you gots to understand that in dis world of politics you got to do the right thing, sugah. These kids are not good children like y'all. They's often the kinds of kids that is called 'super-predators. Got no conscience, no empathy. We can talk about why they ended up that way, but first we have to bring them to heel. They need some churchin' up and some discipline. It wasn't no matter of race. I was just tryin' to keep my babies safe and sound. Besides all that, sugah, I know what it's like to be po'. If you -- you have no reason to remember, but we - Bubba, that's what I call my man, Bill - came out of the White House not only dead broke, but in debt. We had no money when we got there and we struggled to, you know, piece together enough for mortgages for houses, for Chelsea's education, you know, it was not easy. Bubba has worked really hard and it's been amazing to me. He's worked very hard, first of all, we had to pay off all our debts which was, you know, we had to make double the money because of obviously taxes, and pay you have at debts, and get us houses and take care of family members. Yes, suh, I do know the struggle. I been on that struggle bus, sitting in the front with sister Rosa Parks, praise the lawd. Praise Jesus."
Now I had to press the issue. "Your husband has earned over 100 million in speaking and engagement fees alone, and you're saying that you identify with the economic plight of the average middle-class citizen or even the lower financial classes? How can you and if so, how?"
Mrs. Clinton pointed at me with a half-exposed rib bone, shreds of pork in the crevices of her teeth and red glaze now so thick that it visibly ran down her wrist. Her tone became maternal if not accusatory: "Child, me and Bubba understand what that struggles is, because we had student debts, both of us, we had to pay off. I had a couple of jobs in law school. He had a lot of jobs. We have life experiences that's clearly different in very dramatic ways from many Americans, but also we have gone through some of the same challenges as many people have. We know the struggle, sugah."
Mrs. Clinton then devoured the rest of her rib. She dug fervently into her pea, beans and greens. The plate was being cleared systematically.
"Child, don't sass me now," Mrs. Clinton said as a few beans rolled out of her maw. "We been fortunate. I ain't gonna lie. My mammy ran away from an abusive house at 14 and survived the Great Depression. She raised me right. If'n I got bullied on the playground she would send me right back out there to stand up to them bullies and to fight for what was right. That's what I plan on doin' fo' this here country, the finest, most gloriest country in the da world. Praise Jesus. I'm gonna push it back out the door and I'm gonna say 'Merica, you get back on that play ground and you tell those devils you isn't gonna fall down again. No suh! Praise Jesus!"
I was stunned at this point. She had stupefied me in the truest sense of the word: she had made me stupid to the point of apoplexy. The stinging, hard-line questions I had planned on asking, the in-depth line of interrogation that I had surmised in my mind had all vanished. Maybe this was her genius, a sort of calculated nonsense, a jerry-rigged retardation that made the masses sway in the tide of her ignorance. It had hit me hard enough in the aspect to leave me as stunned as a boxer who had dropped his guard. There I was watching her clean her plate of every shred of meat, every bean and pea and every leaf of greens; sucking her fingers; licking her palms; wiping of the excess barbecue sauce from her lips and consuming that too. I thought to myself, "She thought I was Sambo or something. Step n' Fetchit. Some Vaudeville re-creation of every stereotype she had seen in Arkansas while she sat in front of the TV as a little girl. As a politician she is a mirror, reflecting back to me not what I am but what she thinks I am. Her plate was empty. She had consumed it all. The interview was over. I excused myself.
"Let me fix you a plate for you can take home, sugah," Mrs. Clinton said, rising from her chair. "You might get hungry later and you ain't got yo' mammy to cook for you."
I assured her I would be fine. There were plenty of restaurants in my neighborhood, where there were other blacks, Asians, Jews, whites, Italians and a lot of Indians. She told me to remember to "walk in the Spirit of the Lord" and gave me a peck on the cheek. I turned, wipe the sauce from my face and went home to write this article as quickly as I could.