I don’t think I’ve ever met a black woman who didn’t keep everything.
My great-grandmother’s tendency to hold on to receipts for over 20 years used to baffle me until I started to meet other black women like her. A family friend had receipts dating back decades stacked in her home. Two black women I interviewed for a story about air pollution in Orlando, Florida, both had dozens of documents detailing government-induced environmental racism.
So it’s no surprise to me that Omarosa Manigault Newman, one of the more recent defectors from the Trump administration, kept detailed records — including audio recordings — of her time in the White House. In the rollout for her new tell-all book, Unhinged, Manigault Newman released a recording of her being fired by White House Chief of Staff John Kelly. She dropped a subsequent recording of a phone call with President Donald Trump, who seemed to be unaware that she’d been fired. On Tuesday, she produced a recording of three Trump campaign aides — including Katrina Pierson, a spokeswoman for the campaign — discussing a long-rumored tape in which the president apparently says “nigger” in referring to a black contestant on “The Apprentice.”
My great-grandmother feared not having proof of payment even years after a debt was settled. The women I interviewed feared not being believed. I’m not sure what Manigault Newman is afraid of, but I do know that she got the White House shook.
Kelly reportedly said at the time of her firing that the president had signed off on dumping her, yet the recording suggests otherwise. Pierson had claimed no such meeting about the N-word tape ever took place, yet the recording says otherwise. For years there have been rumors about a tape in which Trump says the N-word, and Manigault Newman’s account — no matter how muddy — has pushed the White House into a corner where they won’t deny that it exists. Trump himself has lashed out in a series of misogynoir-laced tweets, calling her a “dog,” a “lowlife,” “deranged” and “wacky.”
It’s typical behavior. When you shake them white folks, they will come for your character, and when that doesn’t work, they will try to take everything from you. Never forget that it was a black woman who gave a new layer to the notion of “receipts.” In a 2002 interview, Diane Sawyer asked Whitney Houston about an alleged $730,000 drug habit. “I wanna see the receipts,” Houston replied. “I wanna see the receipts.” Sawyer didn’t have them. There was something almost seditious in the exchange — a black woman telling a white figure of the establishment that she couldn’t come for her without proof — and since then, the term has come to encompass all manner of proof, including evidence of famous people doing fucked-up things they’d lied about having done. But its real meaning, the meaning that Houston evoked, is linked to a deeper distrust of powerful institutions, the people who represent them and how they will accuse you of doing something without any evidence.
This is why my great-grandmother always wanted proof that she had paid her car note. This is why our family friend wanted proof that she owned her house. It’s why Manigault Newman recorded her conversations. It’s why she isn’t really worried about a potential lawsuit. The receipts have inoculated her against retribution, which often falls unfairly upon black women.
Manigault Newman is no hero. She was complicit in Trump’s White House. She was reportedly behind some of his worst tweets. She kept quiet about Trump’s racism until she had a book to promote. And even now she has been willing to engage with it only on the superficial terms of our dominant media culture, which won’t call anything racist without a tape, a Social Security card, a notary’s signature and the ghost of Martin Luther King Jr. nodding his head.
Maybe she’s opportunistic. Maybe she’s just trying to survive. Maybe she’s power hungry and vindictive. So are lots of politicians. The difference is that she’s a black woman. Black women, even the ones with terrible politics, know to hold on to things. We know the dogs will come running after you when you defect — no matter how loyal you were during your time on the plantation.