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A Wider Lens

As I pass through my living room, a story in progress on CNN catches my attention. It’s December 2020 and the youngest member-elect of Congress, Madison Cawthorn, a 25-year-old Republican from North Carolina, is mid-apology for referring to Hitler as “Der Fuhrer.” Three years earlier, he’d visited Eagles Nest, the former summer home of the Nazi leader. During the visit, he posted a photo with a caption paying homage to Hitler by using the term, which means “The Leader” in German. This is the first time I’ve heard of the newly-elected Cawthorn. He doesn’t look like a congressman to me. He seems like a contestant from The Bachelor, with slicked-back blond hair, gleaming white teeth, and wide-set green eyes.

Cawthorn, polished and articulate, I imagine him captain of his high school football team and a debate champion, which would have led to acceptance to an Ivy League college and a job on Wall Street. I decide he is a man who moves through life, obstacles moved aside by others, to clear the way for him to pursue the American Dream. I’m a mixed-race woman, with a Black mom and a white, Jewish dad, who carries her rage deep inside. In Cawthorn, I remember: my former boss who regularly took the advice of an inexperienced white guy over me; an old man who leaned out of his apartment window to yell, “Go home niggers” at a group of Black men and me walking on the street in Oakland; the kid who beat me up because I was the only Black girl on the elementary school bus; the bully’s taunts, “You’re a dirty Jew.” CNN flashes his social media post, Cawthorn posing with a wide smile at Hitler’s home and writing in photo captions that visiting the place was “on his bucket list” and it “did not disappoint.”

In the glare of the light reflecting off the television, my own strength—five decades of confronting and tolerating racism–stares back at me. Shards of glass buried deep in my soul, I watch the arrogance of Cawthorn’s white male privilege, unconcerned about the pain his words have caused. The longer he talks, the less sincere his apology seems, as if he’s swatting away an annoying fly. “I was unaware that using a certain term describing an evil man — Hitler — was offensive to people in the Jewish community. And if that did offend them, that is something I never meant to do,” he said. God, I despise his tanned, lightly freckled face that exudes confidence, even in such an embarrassing moment. His tone congenial, slightly patronizing, as if he is talking to elderly nursing home residents in his district.

Then, the camera angle widens to show the backdrop of an American flag. The frame zooms out until I see the congressman is sitting in a wheelchair. I’m shocked first, then angry at myself for judging him without knowing he is paralyzed from the waist down. I stare at the television, transfixed by the sight of his wheelchair. I look him up, discovering that his friend fell asleep at the wheel as they returned from a spring break trip, crashing the car. At age 18, Cawthorn’s legs ceased to move forever. I am wrong in my assumption that his life has been free from suffering. He is not without anguish and misfortune. He is also an anti-Semitic white supremacist. My compassion extends to his injured body but ends at his beliefs that attempt to extinguish my humanity.

Christina Simon is the former nonfiction editor for Angels Flight Literary West. Her essays are forthcoming in Electric Lit and have appeared in Salon, The Offing, Columbia Journal (2020 Black History Month Contest for Nonfiction), Another Chicago Magazine, The Citron Review, PANK, Proximity’s blog, True, Entropy and Barren Magazine.

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