Illustration by Ansellia Kulikku.

In the months after the November election, I have often found myself in the company of people—almost always white people—who say, “This is all just so surprising!” or “This isn’t who America is!” or “I didn’t think this could actually happen!” and I have found a way to move my body as quickly as possible out of the reach of their mouths.

I am hearing such statements again now that the Montana special elections have proven a white man can win a seat in Congress even after being formally charged with assaulting a journalist who is trying to do his job. Some people say the outcome of this election was skewed because so many ballots were cast before we knew the winner had such violent tendencies. Other people claim to be shocked at the level of violence voters will condone. I am not shocked by any of this. For quite some time—since The Beginning, really—black people have been pointing out that “this” is actually happening. Recognizing the problem at this point feels like too little too late.

I want to point out that I find myself worrying about people’s intentions almost all the time. I find myself worrying that people I like will speak words or commit acts that cause me great pain. I find myself worrying about writing about all of this. I find myself worrying that confronting this pain will make my life more difficult. I find myself staying home more and more often.

Some time ago we moved into the basement. Which feels remarkably right.

*

Our house has been torn apart. We’re renovating our master bathroom and insulating all the ceilings, floors, and walls. So we’ve been living in the basement for more than a month.

It’s cozy down here. Part of me wants to stay forever.

My daughter sleeps in the room that was advertised as a craft room by the sellers’ real estate agent. We call it The Dot Room because, after a catastrophic hailstorm felled the guest room window, causing the rest of the basement to flood, I painted over The Dot Room’s original homogenous color scheme, tracing out a series of contrasting circles using an avocado-green Lazy Susan my mother had held on to since the ’70s. That old Lazy Susan was a perfect stencil, and I still haven’t thrown it away. I come from people who can’t throw anything away.

We use The Dot Room as an overflow guest room. There are no windows in the room, and concrete sits just behind the drywall. It’s cool and it’s dark, which makes it the perfect place to retreat from the world.

When I was a girl in Iowa, my family home had a similar room. It wasn’t carpeted. The walls were bare concrete. Part of the reason I made sure to finish the room in our current basement is because the Iowa room almost always felt like wasted space. The sellers’ agent had advertised it as a ‘Fraidy Room, a place where our family could retreat in case of a home-threatening storm. My parents kept wine and a few boxes there, but mostly we found ourselves in the ‘Fraidy Room only if tornado sirens sounded.

What am I doing?

I’m thinking about writing about living as a black woman—the mother of a black child—in America.

I am writing about escape rooms.

*

There’s a line in my new book of essays that caused me concern for a while. It addresses the fact that my great-grandfather was—as a direct descendant described him—”damned near white.” But my great-grandfather was not white. And that is my point in my book. That was the point made clear to my great-grandfather on the threat of death. Part of my concern stemmed from the fact that a few of my friends wondered why his near-whiteness didn’t get him a pass. Wouldn’t white privilege keep him safe?

That’s not how it works in America.

Have yourself a biracial child in this country and put him out in the world and what you’ll have walking down the road is a black boy. Black isn’t a skin tone. It’s a condition. My great-grandfather was a black man in America and no matter who his father was or who his father’s father was or how close he toed the line to whiteness or how much he believed in his right to advance beyond the menial stations reserved for Negroes he wasn’t going to be allowed to escape his black body. Except through death.

This great-grandfather owned a sheet-metal shop on the border that divided a dry state from a wet one. On the dry side of the shop, he built bathtubs. On the wet side of the shop, he built stills.

I’m pretty sure I know why I love this story so much. And I’m pretty sure it has something to do with a black man bending the law of the land to his will.

*

It’s May, and the police have killed another child.

This child was fifteen years old. He was leaving a party with his brother who—rather than spending the rest of the night celebrating the successful end to another school year—had to witness the last moments of his little brother’s life.

There will be plenty written about this murder. People are pointing out that he was an honors student, as if academic success should have granted him a pass from the condition of black lives in America. The police who shot this child have already claimed that his car was advancing aggressively toward the police vehicle. And video footage already shows this was not the case.

I am tired of these conversations.

I am tired of having to explain why it is not okay for police to think it is okay to kill a fifteen-year-old black boy who is sitting still in a moving car.

*

A few months ago, a local high school student contacted me because she needed to interview a professional woman whose work she admired. This was a lovely request—one I was happy to oblige.

At the end of the interview, the girl said she had one final question: “Why do Black Lives Matter?”

I had an answer for her, but I don’t remember what it was.

I remember thinking I wanted to answer as nicely as I could because this was a sweet girl from a family I liked quite a bit and she meant no harm and there probably aren’t more than twenty black students in her entire high school, and so she had no reason to know how hurtful her question was, and it was clear from her tone that she was earnestly trying to make sense of all this, and so I’m sure I answered in a detached manner with statistical information about the disproportionate number of black people and people of color killed by police before they have a chance to undergo the due process of law, and I’m sure I didn’t mention anything about the bias of the legal system that makes it nearly impossible for a person of color in America to experience a fair trial in this country even if they happen to be arrested by police rather than summarily killed, and I’m sure I didn’t say to this child that another word for such summary and extrajudicial justice is lynching because I’m sure I gave her an answer that fit into a sound bite she could use in her school report and that might make a difference in her very white class in this very white town in some tepid way, and I know for a fact I didn’t curse her or curse her question though I wanted to then and have wanted to ever since.

Do you think your life matters?

Well, so do I.

That’s what I should have said.

I think Jordan Edwards’s life matters.

I am angry he is dead.

*

Dear Brenda: I have started writing again after the great silencing that was the election and the installation of that person and all those who stand behind him and his supremacist notions. Now I am carrying a very small, very cheap, very inconsequential notebook, and sometimes I write things in it. It feels like something, and it also feels like nothing. Like all those calls I keep making to my senators and representatives.

Here is a photo of the little gifts you sent Callie Violet. They are leaning against a start from one of my African violets. All of the violets have done so well in our living room that they outgrew their pots. I’ve had to give them new homes. They’re struggling now. But they are hanging on.

My whole life feels like a metaphor these days.

All love,

Camille

*

After the ballots were counted in 2004, and after Kerry conceded, I started trying to punch white people in the mouth.

But first I spent one too many nights in my friend’s bar. We were angry, and that night—call it election night, call it concession night—after the bar closed, we kept drinking, and then we started breaking our beer bottles on the walls and old-fashioned tiled floors.

I woke up the next morning and decided there must be a better way to fight.

I joined what was supposed to be a mixed-martial-arts studio but was really a boxing gym where conservative white men could get away with kicking and punching in ways that didn’t feel too colored. We wore karate pants, but blue with black stripes. We wore T-shirts with the gym’s logo.

The gym owner never did settle on a promotion system while I was a member. First there were belts. Then there were badges. Then a different color T-shirt with every advancement. I didn’t care. The gym was directly across the road from Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, and most of the members were Liberty affiliates. A lot of them were cops or former cops. A lot of them were also members of Jerry Falwell’s Thomas Road Baptist Church. I hated everything they stood for. Let me be clear, I didn’t hate the police or the Fundamentalists or the individual men. I repudiated the notions of intolerance and unequal protection and isolationism they claimed to stand behind. Though they really liked me personally—as they told me repeatedly between sparring sessions—they also professed to hate everything that I believed.

Two hours a night, Monday through Thursday (and sometimes Fridays and Saturdays, too), we kicked the hell out of each other.

Goddamn, but that felt good.

*

The morning after the 2016 election, my husband pulled all our blinds closed, and they have stayed that way ever since. Maybe the basement feels right to me now because I can’t look outside even when I’m not below ground.

Beyond the blinds I have a garden that I love. For three years I have been pulling rocks from the hardscaped beds, mixing compost and soil into the red Colorado clay I find beneath. I’ve reclaimed large sections of the lawn and converted those to flower beds as well. In November my sunflowers were still bright, as were the four o’clocks and the late-blooming perennials—the hyssop and the mums. I used to open the blinds every morning so I could look out at my garden all day. But it’s hard to know what passersby might think if they catch a glimpse of our home’s interior. Much of the art is from the African Diaspora. There are portraits of a satisfied black family all over the walls, many of them painted by a professional artist. My husband doesn’t keep our blinds closed, because he is afraid we’ll be robbed.

He is afraid we might be killed.

For the second time in my little notebook, I find a note that reads: “It occurs to me that the person who took the time to share the idea that just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you might well have been black.”

*

Right after the election, I started to want to learn my way around a gun.

Not to kill anyone.

Just in case— while we were on the run—someone dropped near us and I had to grab a gun from the body without breaking stride.

I want to know what to do.

I want to know how to clean a gun and load a gun and how to fix myself against a gun’s recoil. I want to know what it’s like to breathe in and pull the trigger as I exhale. Not because I want to use a gun against someone. But because I am afraid of a gun being used against someone I love.

I told this to a couple of writer friends one afternoon in February. How I thought it would be a good idea to join a gun club, like I joined the boxing gym. Then I told them what worried me—that if I walked my black body into a gun club and started shooting this could easily turn into one of those stories where a black person ended up dead and the narrative would be spun so that my death was my own fault. Maybe I needed to find a white friend to take the lessons with me, I said.

The woman in this conversation thought this gun-club experience would make a great essay. She thought I shouldn’t take anyone with me. Bringing along a white companion would skew all my interactions in the club.

“Is this about getting material for an essay?” my male friend asked. “Or is it about keeping Camille safe?”

I thought his response meant my friend understood the big picture as it related to the precarious position of black lives in America. But not half an hour later, when the conversation turned to the racial hostilities revealed in this country after the election, he said, “This is all just so surprising!” and “I didn’t think this could actually happen!” And I realized he wasn’t seeing the big picture at all.

*

I went to my daughter’s school on what felt like the first day of spring. The girls were all in sundresses. No one wore socks. I noticed the grass had turned green.

Four blondes played tetherball—two per court. One black girl stood off to the side. I thought she said, “Can I play the next game?”

I thought I heard one of the blondes answer, “Tomorrow? Sure.”

On the steps to the school grounds, someone had carefully chalked these words. They were a threat, or a promise: 

THE WORLD IS CHANGING.

*

We almost moved out of the basement, but the nozzle on our new shower is calibrated incorrectly. It’s impossible to heat the water past lukewarm because the temperature gauge is fixed between hot and cold.

We will have to call the handyman, but I don’t want to trouble him over the weekend. The workweek will start soon enough. He can try to fix the problem then.

As we went to sleep on the lower level, two of us in the guest room and one in the storm shelter, I thought about my great-grandfather who built bathtubs because that’s what the law allowed.

I bet he would have fixed this if he could.

Camille Dungy

Camille T. Dungy is the author of the essay collection Guidebook to Relative Strangers: Journeys Into Race, Motherhood, and History and of four collections of poetry, most recently Trophic Cascade. She has also edited anthologies including Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry. She is a professor at Colorado State University.

At Guernica, we’ve spent the last 13 years producing uncompromising journalism. 

More than 80% of our finances come from readers like you. And we’re constantly working to produce a magazine that deserves you—a magazine that is a platform for ideas fostering justice, equality, and civic action.

If you value Guernica’s role in this era of obfuscation, please donate.

Help us stay in the fight by giving here.

3 Comments on “Notes from the Lower Level

  1. What a beautiful and moving piece of writing. I’m sorry this sucks so much. I’m sorry it sucks at all. I’m sorry it has to suck for white people before we as a group begin to understand that it isn’t new to you, and I’m hoping now that it sucks for white people, we’ll finally join you and push back enough to move forward together (or at least make room for you to move forward, yourself).

  2. Thanks for sharing such an introspective and thoughtful piece. I really felt a lot of things I’ve been feeling and struggling with reflected in this piece. Grateful to read this today.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *