My 86-Year-Old Grandmother Helped Put My Trump Freakouts in Perspective

My 86-Year-Old Grandmother Helped Put My Trump Freakouts in Perspective
Illustration by Angelica Alzona. :

I did not handle Donald Trump’s victory well.

In the days that followed the election, my dad tried to calm me down with logical, if unsatisfying, rationales: “You live in California! You have healthcare! The next four years will be frustrating but you will probably be OK.”

As I finally started to settle into this new reality, I asked: “How’s Grandma?” My grandmother, Sybil Brown, is the most sprightly 86-year-old you’ve ever seen in your life. She’s a longtime Seattle resident and worked for decades as a school teacher and principal. She and my dad now live next door to each other which is as hilarious, comforting and irritating for both of them as it sounds.

“She seems fine, actually,” he said and we both guessed that at a certain point, when you’ve lived long enough, it’s hard for much to faze you. And, I thought, as an 86-year-old black woman who spent most of her life in the United States, surely she’d seen things more terrible than this.

On a recent trip home, I spoke to her about Trump and the current chaos of the world. Her answers weren’t exactly what I expected. I thought she’d comfort me with stories about how things had been worse and look at us now! We’re alright. Unfortunately, she didn’t really do that. Mostly, my grandmother confirmed that yes, this is all as terrible as it seems.

Still, there was a matter-of-factness and stoicism to her responses. It wasn’t so much that she’d lived through something but that she’s continued to live at all. While we should of course care about other people and the greater humankind, there’s something to be said for self-preservation and it’s a tactic so many black Americans have practiced for centuries.

As a black woman, my Grandmother clearly knew this country was against her—hated her, even. And while they hated her, she carved out the best life she could. She pushed for change, of course, but also trusted that things would correct themselves and if they didn’t, at least you have your family and friends and a life you enjoy.

I’d love to share her optimism, though it’s difficult to do these days. But it’s also helpful to remember how much she’s seen get better—not perfect, but better. And beyond that, she’s seen the world continue to exist. When you’re surrounded by chaos and hatred, unsure of when it will subside, if ever, it makes sense to spend as many moments as possible focusing on what you can control and what brings you some comfort. This is what I took from our conversation. For that time, in that moment, she did make me feel better about the future—and it’s important to enjoy, even if the feeling won’t last.

JEZEBEL: How are you feeling about the world?

SYBIL BROWN: I feel frustrated because of our new president.

Do you think he’s the worst president you’ve seen?

He’s the worst president I’ve ever witnessed being president. And also the worst president I’ve ever read about in history.

Does he remind you of any past leaders?

No. He doesn’t remind of anybody. I can’t put him with Goldwater because you don’t know where he’s coming from because he vacillates. He moves from one philosophy to another one and often times they conflict.

I remember right after the election, I asked my dad and he said that you seemed calm, maybe because you’ve already witnessed the country do stupid, terrible things.

The only other time I was disappointed in my lifetime was when Reagan won. And of course, that’s because Reagan proceeded to undo a lot of the things that Johnson had done that benefited people of color. So that depressed me. But Reagan allowed people to lead him. He listened to the people around him and the people around him were smart people and they had backgrounds in government and in governing. So did Bush—the younger Bush. He had people around him who told him what to do and they knew what they were talking about. They had experience in the government. But this guy doesn’t have that and he doesn’t have the background and the people he put in there are just wealthy people and they don’t have the background or the knowledge.

I know for many people my age, from my generation, this is probably the scariest the world has ever seemed for us. The world has probably be scarier for you before right?


Really? This is it?


This is worse than Jim Crow?

I’ve always been optimistic. When I grew up in the Jim Crow era in Tulsa, that’s all I knew. And since Tulsa was a progressive city unlike any other southern city in the country, we had some advantages. We had a good school system. We had good teachers. And it was like it was a self-contained community. We had black businesses. We had black people who owned supermarkets and during that time you didn’t see a big market owned by a black person or a pharmacy owned by blacks.

What about the ’70s and ’80s?

In the ’70s and ’80s I was here [in Seattle].

And the world seemed fine?

Yes because I was so busy working and being a mother—raising two kids and a husband—that everything was fine. I was happy.

I think some of us are finding that what’s happening is infringing on the ability to go about other things without worry.

It doesn’t bother me. It doesn’t affect me directly. My insurance is okay. And if I needed to, I could pay my medical expenses, so that wouldn’t be a problem for me.

So you’re not worried about a war against North Korea?

No. I think there are enough people there in Washington that might help Trump avoid it. I’m optimistic about that, but the only thing that I worry about is that Trump might have a tantrum and do or say something that might put us at risk. But I think with all this pressure on him now from Democrats and Republicans, I think it will keep us safe. It won’t give us with a better world, but I think it will keep us safe.

I’ll have to remember that. I’m worried he’s going to blow us up.

I don’t think that’ll happen. I think somebody’ll tackle him [laughing].

Did you think Hillary was going to win?

Mmhmm. I thought she was. Until that FBI guy came out and made his speech and I could just see the optimism dropping.

At least you got to see Barack Obama elected. Though you’ll probably be alive for the first female president too.


You. You could live for another 20 years.

No. [Laughing] No we might have a woman president before that. You know, we could have a woman president if Michelle [Obama] would agree to run.

Do you like Elizabeth Warren?

For vice-president. [Laughing] I don’t know. I don’t know her that well. But I think any woman who gets into office, who gets up that high, will have to be somebody who has really had a lot of experience and who is smarter than Trump—and that’ll be easy, to be smarter than Trump. I think a woman who gets up there will be really smart like Obama was. He had to be extra smart to get the attention and the support that he got and I think that we’ve got some smart women back there.

You’re reading [Roxane Gay’s book] Difficult Women. Do you think you’re a difficult woman?

Of course! I hope so. [Laughing] When I was working some of the men thought I was difficult just because I was smarter than they were. Then they finally got to the point where they accepted me but they never recognized me as being a leader.

Do you have any friends who voted for Donald Trump?

No. Everybody that I know, who I’ve talked to, are anti-Trump.

Would you still be friends with someone if they voted for—

No because I’d think they were stupid. I probably wouldn’t have anything to do with them because I’d think they’d be stupid. When I see those black people supporting Trump, I start analyzing them and I keep analyzing what they’re saying and it leads to stupidity. At some point in their conversation they’ll say something stupid trying to defend Trump.

So should we stop freaking out?

Of course. Never freak out.

I was freaking out.

When you say, ‘freak out,’ what does that mean?

Well I was upset. And watching him, it feels like he is dragging us into a hole we won’t be able to get out of.

Oh, you were giving up.

Do you think you’re optimistic because you’ve been alive for 86 years?

I think so. I think I trust the country to survive. I trust enough people to be in Washington or wherever to keep the country safe. So I don’t worry about the fact that Trump might do something stupid. I think if Trump reached to touch the button, somebody might grab his wrist. That’s what I think. I think there will be somebody there to hold him back.

God I hope so.

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