| Claire Galofaro |
ROWLAND, North Carolina (AP) – They put down their pompoms and lined up along the football field behind their tiny high school in their tiny town.
Their classmates marched the American flag onto the field. “The Star-Spangled Banner” began, and six teenage girls with blue bows in their hair each dropped to one knee.
They had for days been quietly planning this protest, against discrimination and police brutality, but also against the nation’s ratcheting racial tensions, against those white supremacists they’d seen on television with torches in a city not so far away. They had agreed in the moments before that they were ready to accept the consequences, and braced for the response.
No one booed. No one applauded them, either. No television cameras zoomed in for a close-up. As the anthem ended, some of them wondered if anyone had noticed at all. They got to their feet and launched their first cheer.
By morning, however, the culture wars splintering the nation would land here in miniature — in the most racially diverse rural county in America, a community so small a sign welcomes visitors to the “town of 1,000 friends.”
A parent from the away team had snapped a photo. Out it went onto social media. In poured calls for the girls to be punished, their principal fired.
Many lined up along ideological and racial divides, and some saw people they’d known all their lives on the other side. Those who gazed into the gulf in between were left with the same unsettling sense — that something is souring in America’s soul.
Aajah Washington is a shy girl, merely 14, unaccustomed to conflict. She likes to cheer and sing and dreams of becoming a nurse. She grew up here in Rowland in Robeson County — where the population is split among whites, blacks and Native Americans, and many often remark at how well they’ve overcome the scars of slavery and segregation to get along, side by side.
She awoke the Saturday after the game, opened Facebook, and found that people had deemed her and her friends a disgrace. “Pure sick to my stomach,” one wrote. Another opined that they must have intellectual deficiencies. One woman offered that she’d break her child’s knees if she’d done the same thing.
Aajah hadn’t told her mother what she and her fellow cheerleaders had planned to do. And so when they talked that Saturday, Tiona Washington asked her daughter if she’d had her reasons. The girl did.
The only president Aajah had ever really known was African-American, like her. Then her county, which voted twice for Barack Obama, joined with the nation to elect Donald Trump, whose comments about Muslims and minorities seemed to only further divide Americans between “us” and “them.”
Aajah saw her new president say there were “very fine people on both sides” of the deadly white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. He suggested in a speech to law enforcement officers that maybe they weren’t being rough enough.
“I watch TV every day and that’s all we see, police brutality or the KKK is coming out,” says Aajah. She’d never before felt the sting of racism, at least nothing obvious, but the ferocity of America’s divisions frightens her. She and her friends tallied up their worries as they debated whether their protest would be worth it.
“It just seems like the world is changing, where everything from back then is coming back now,” she says. “It feels like it’s slowly approaching.”
One of Aajah’s mother’s earliest memories, from kindergarten in the early 1980s, is riding in a car just across the state line in South Carolina. She saw men in white with torches lining the streets. The Washingtons are a Christian family, church every Sunday, so young Tiona assumed she was seeing something holy. But Tiona’s mother was trembling, because she knew exactly what sort of people hid under those hoods. So she shouted for her daughter to get low and told her, “If you see those people, you have to fear them.”
Tiona Washington reflects on that moment as a crumbling of childhood innocence, a sudden awareness that some of her fellow Americans hated her because of the colour of her skin. Her own mother learned the same when she became one of the first black students at Rowland’s newly integrated high school in the class of 1971. Edith Washington still remembers teachers making a big show of scrubbing their hands after they touched the black students’ papers, children screaming racial slurs as she walked through the white neighbourhood on her way to school.
The older women had hoped times had changed enough that Aajah would never confront anything similar.
“This is the most lost I’ve felt racially in my entire life,” Tiona Washington says, acknowledging that she, too, almost voted for Trump until the racial undercurrent of the campaign became too strong. “We are seeing things that happened in eras we thought we were past.”
In Rowland, reminders of that darker time remain. Railroad tracks separate two sides of town, and people still refer to them as “the white folks’ section” and “the black folks’ section.” And despite the halting road to progress, black people in this impoverished county are still twice as likely to be poor as whites.
Washington believes real change will only come one person, one small statement, at a time. And so, on that Saturday morning after the game, she told her daughter she was proud of her.
“We’re back at a crossroads,” Washington says. “The question is: Where do we want to go from here?”
The football field at South Robeson High has a sign at the gate for the “Vonta Leach Strength Complex,” named for a hometown kid made good — a man who pulled his family out of poverty by playing in the NFL. Days before the girls staged their protest there, a local newspaper reporter called Leach to get his response to the president’s fiery derision of protesting NFL players.
When the paper landed on doorsteps the headline read, “I would have kneeled.”
The keyboard thugs, as Leach has come to call them, pounced. People he’d considered friends told him: Get out of the United States. Go back where you came from.