Life

“Bad at Being Black”

For most of my life, I’d never seen a black hunter like me depicted in pop culture. When I did, it hit even closer to home than I could’ve imagined.

Antonia Okafor in a scene from “The Young Black Conservatives of Trump’s America.”
Antonia Okafor in a scene from “The Young Black Conservatives of Trump’s America.”
Vice/YouTube

Antonia Okafor displays the dead pheasant for the camera, beaming from ear to ear. Clad in a handsome orange and chocolate vest, over-under shotgun draped across her free arm, she continues to smile as a man’s voice fades in over the scene: “Just because you are black,” the voice intones, “you do not have to be a Democrat.” Minutes later, a reporter walks alongside Okafor. His voice is tinged with barely concealed disbelief when he asks, “Is this, like, a regular thing? Do you come out into the plains with white men carrying shotguns a lot?” She throws back her head in a paroxysm of laughter. The sequence ends with Okafor raising her shotgun as another bird darts across the field in front of her—she fires and the pheasant folds in midair, disappearing off-screen. As the camera zooms in, the frame is filled with black feathers, vulnerable and out of place against a massive, cloud-white Iowa sky. The symbolism is on the nose, but effective.

The Vice documentary in which Okafor appears, “The Young Black Conservatives of Trump’s America,” can best be described as a confusing, cringe-inducing study in poor judgment. Populated by a cast of black Trump supporters who seem blind, often willfully, to the realities of institutionalized racism, there is much here that is shocking and very little that is surprising. Yet amid the obligatory montages of black people in MAGA hats and Candace Owens crowing about the “Democratic plantation,” we also encounter something entirely uncommon: a black hunter being depicted in the mainstream media. For many viewers, the rarity of such an occurrence likely passed unnoticed, overshadowed by the documentary’s more wince-worthy moments—such as Okafor agreeing with Trump’s assessment that African countries are “shitholes.” For me, however, the appearance of Okafor holding that pheasant was remarkable.

I have been half-black my entire life, a hunter almost as long, and yet for most of my life I had never seen a black hunter depicted in a popular medium. That changed recently when I suddenly saw two in one week: Antonia Okafor, in the Vice documentary—which was released earlier this year as part of the network’s series Minority Reports—and Wayne Hays, Mahershala Ali’s character in the latest season of True Detective. I found that both depictions, though vastly different in form and substance, offered fascinating windows into how diversity is viewed in America—even and most especially by the supposedly progressive. If the Vice documentary functions as an opportunity to stare in open-mouthed wonder at black people exhibiting delinquent politics and atypical cultural affinities, True Detective’s Wayne Hays explodes the very idea that there are legitimate and illegitimate modes of blackness. In order to appreciate what True Detective gets right, it’s also useful to understand what the Vice documentary gets wrong.

Those moments with Okafor stuck with me because they hit close to home. At the moment, I live in New York, where I moved after college for graduate school. Last November, I waited in line to cast a vote for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Trump would no doubt call my political opinions “socialist.” And though I’m biracial, I was also raised in south-central Pennsylvania by my white mother and my white adoptive father whom she married when I was in elementary school. In the second half of the Vice documentary, we meet a black Trump-supporting college student named Shekinah who was raised by a white family in Greeley, Ohio. As of the last census, Greeley was 1.7 percent black. That’s 459 percent more black than my hometown.

You might think that such circumstances would invite constant reflection on the color of my skin, but I don’t remember thinking much about race growing up. I mostly didn’t have to. I’m not painting south-central Pennsylvania as a post-racial paradise. I’ve seen and heard things there that you’d be unlikely to witness on the streets of New York. But I also never felt out of place: If my weak-coffee summer tan and almost-Afro stood out like a sore thumb, my interests did not. I spent the winter hunting, the warm months fishing. Weeknights were passed hunched over a guitar, memorizing overblown solos from whatever Megadeth album I was listening to. Weekends I worked at a rod and gun club. Like most young people, I simply did the kinds of things my friends did. To my untutored mind, these were “people things,” not “white people things.”

I learned the difference in college, though. That was the first time I was around a diverse group of people who were eager to talk about race rather than politely pretend it didn’t exist. It was also the first time I learned that I’m “bad” at being half-black. I’m not being self-deprecating—people regularly told me this, sometimes in so many words, sometimes with a cocked eyebrow or simple gesture.

So when Okafor was asked if pheasant hunting is a “regular thing” for her, I recognized the reporter’s tone immediately: It was the tone of the admissions officer who declared it “delightfully unorthodox” that someone of “my background” counted bass fishing as a hobby, the undergrad professor who diagnosed my decision to write a paper on Wallace Stevens rather than Langston Hughes as “a missed opportunity,” the friend who called my Thanksgiving break deer hunting excursion “some real Uncle Tom shit,” the friend of a friend who explained that I needed “blackening up” because I didn’t know who Tyler the Creator was, the visiting student who declared my Jaws T-shirt “the whitest thing” he’d ever seen, the dorm mate who implied that I was self-hating because I declined to join his intramural basketball team. The list goes on.

I have been thinking about these encounters since I first saw the Vice documentary and watched, with growing discomfort, as Okafor was paraded across the screen in hunter’s orange. I was uncomfortable not because I sympathize with Okafor’s politics, but because it’s not just her politics that the documentary encourages us to greet with suspicion.

As with other installments of Vice’s Minority Reports series, “The Young Black Conservatives of Trump’s America” does seem driven by a sincere desire to understand its subjects in their own words, on their own terms. But the effect can be jarring. As its title implies, the bulk of the Vice documentary consists of young black Trump supporters attempting to legitimize a political commitment that makes little sense, countered by other young black people reacting with occasional scorn but most often with polite confusion. One Colorado college student declares that black Republicans are “house Negroes at the end of the day,” only to later moderate his views: “There’s nothing wrong with being conservative. There’s nothing wrong with voting your party. The issue is Trump.” And the issue, of course, is Trump. But it is also something more than Trump, a fact that is clear when Okafor is on camera.

Here, context is paramount: We first encounter the Texas-born gun rights activist at a pheasant hunt hosted by Rep. Steve King. What is so remarkable about the whole affair is not just the spectacle of a young black woman mixing and mingling with an unabashedly racist congressman. It’s the extent to which, in these scenes, it becomes difficult to tell where political criticism ends and cultural criticism begins: Okafor stands holding a pheasant she has killed as a disembodied voice declares, “You do not have to be a Democrat.” Somehow, these ideas are related. And as we watch in voyeuristic horror as she drifts amid a crowd of white hunters—the kind of white hunters who would be invited to a Steve King outing—isn’t there another implied judgment lurking below the obvious political absurdity of it all? Pheasant hunting just isn’t a very black thing to do, is it?

Diversity in the classroom, boardroom, or on screen is cheered by the left—as it should be—but diversity in a duck blind or at a country music concert is frequently interpreted very differently, oftentimes as an act of betraying one’s heritage or capitulating to “white society.” I’m not naïve, of course. I don’t expect to turn on my television and regularly see images of people of color bowhunting or listening to Garth Brooks. I do believe, however, that it is counterproductive to progressive values when we depict certain cultural activities, interests, or occupations in a way that suggests they are inherently incompatible with blackness.

Contrast Vice’s representation of Okafor with a pivotal scene in True Detective, in which Wayne Hays sits at a bar with Amelia Reardon, Carmen Ejogo’s character and Hays’ future wife. The year is 1980, and the topic is the detective’s background. “I grew up in Conway,” he explains between sips of beer. “My mom worked on a farm. I spent two years in the jungle. A lot of it I was alone. I hunt a lot now.” When Amelia responds by reporting that she’s a vegetarian, Hays laughs. “That’s a real shame,” he says, before playfully adding, “If you’re a Democrat, don’t tell me.” Throughout the rest of the season, Hays’ experiences as a Vietnam veteran and a hunter enable him to succeed where others fail. And, as he navigates the unique challenges of being a black cop in a rural Arkansas, they also provide a breath of fresh air in what could have easily been yet another police procedural about a brooding white veteran who hunts in his free time, votes Republican, and is haunted by a nightmarish past. Most importantly, these aspects of Hays’ personal life are never presented as a source of tension, as outlandish, or as diminishing his claim to authentic blackness.

In an ideal world, our entertainment would not have to be tutelary, would not need to “set a good example.” In the imperfect world in which we live, however, every time a black person is depicted on a screen, the audience is tacitly encouraged to accept a particular view of what black people are like, what they do, how they behave, and where they belong. The view encouraged by True Detective is that they belong wherever they please, the gatekeepers of “legitimate” blackness be damned. But what does the Vice documentary teach us?

Its principal insight seems to be that black Trump supporters must constantly twist themselves into knots to maintain their faith that Trump’s Republican Party isn’t racist. In other words, it succeeds in demonstrating that Trump supporters tend to behave like Trump supporters. Strip this banal insight away, and what is left? A documentary that is little more than a vehicle for the audience to gawk at black people who are being bad at being black, the engrossing spectacle of ogling at those who are not only politically deficient but also apparently culturally deficient.

The last time we see Okafor, she’s in a grandiose hunting lodge wearing a white dress. Steve King hands her a microphone and she prepares to speak before the assembled crowd of old white men. We never hear her, though. Her voice fades out as white letters fill the screen. They tell us that Okafor has since condemned King for his comments in support of white nationalism and white supremacy. When the text disappears, we are greeted by the sound of squeaking sneakers and a cheering crowd. The documentary ends with slow-motion shots of young black Republicans and young black liberals enjoying a college basketball game together. The political tension lingers, but the suggestion is clear enough—cultural order has been restored to the universe. It jibed with what my own life experiences have taught me: that sometimes when we talk about the value of diversity, we mean diversity that shows up wearing the right clothes, listening to the right music, in the right place.