Lynnette Hardaway’s conversion from lifelong Democrat to Donald Trump’s “most vocal and loyal supporter” happened sometime between her concluding Democrats “didn’t give a damn about my fellow black brothers and sisters” and her acquiring a new iPad. In 2015 she received one as a birthday present, trained the camera on herself and pressed record. Her sister, Rochelle Richardson, told her to put the result on YouTube.
Six months later, in December 2015, Trump held a campaign rally in their home state of North Carolina and beckoned the sisters onstage.
“I hope you’ve monetized this,” he said, offering the microphone. “Do your routine.”
Their routine is “Diamond and Silk,” the names Lynnette, 46, and Rochelle, 47, used to go viral during the presidential campaign with their chatty diatribes on politics. From what looked like their living room, they praised the Republican real estate mogul and implored Democrats to escape the “Bowl of Stupid” by “ditching and switching” parties. In each video, Diamond would call out fervent conservative proclamations while Silk interjected “mm-hmm” and “that’s right.” They were vastly more entertaining than most of the grim Corey Lewandowski types that populated the Trumpiverse. Since then, their audience has only grown. Now they release a new video every week, sitting side by side, saucily responding to current events.
Monetized? Sure. “Diamond and Silk” is trademarked. On their website, you can buy Diamond and Silk goblets and beer steins ($25). You can download their single, “Trump’s Yo President,” for $1.99. You can pay $50 to $150 to see them in person, with upcoming stops in Greensboro, North Carolina, and New Orleans. A few Facebook fans have remarked the ticket prices are awfully steep, but most express only sadness the sisters are not touring more: We need y’all to come to East Tennessee. We need you in St. Louis. When will you make it to the West Coast? We need you bad out here.
They have 674,000 followers on Twitter and 1.6 million followers on Facebook, which is key to why they are currently in the news.
Diamond and Silk have claimed Facebook is censoring their posts and discriminating against them because of their support of Trump. In early April, they said, the social-media giant sent them a notification stating their content had been deemed “unsafe.” Facebook apologized for what it called an “enforcement error,” but conservative lawmakers pounced. During Mark Zuckerberg’s recent Capitol Hill testimony – ostensibly arranged to discuss the data breach of 87 million users – multiple members of Congress instead used their time to invoke Diamond and Silk.
“What is ‘unsafe’ about two black women supporting Donald J. Trump?” demanded Rep. Billy Long, R-Mo., paraphrasing one of their Facebook posts while an aide unveiled a large photo of the sisters.
On Thursday morning, Trump turned the conversation to them when asked on “Fox & Friends” about Senate confirmation of his appointees.
“Diamond and Silk are warriors, by the way . … They’ve become amazing,” the president said by phone. “You know that started off, like, somebody was talking about them on the internet . … There were these two beautiful, wonderful women . … It took me two seconds to say ‘stardom.’ ”
Later Thursday, Diamond and Silk are scheduled to appear as witnesses during a House Judiciary Committee hearing about allegations of censorship by social media companies.
In their written testimony, the sisters wondered if Zuckerberg is using Facebook to interfere in elections. They also claimed their speech and business are being suppressed by “bias algorithms.”
“We built this platform one person at a time, all we ask is to be given the same opportunity to build our brand,” they wrote to the committee. “It’s not fair for these Giant Techs like Facebook and YouTube get to pull the rug from underneath our platform and our feet and put their foot on our neck to silence our voices.”
Facebook algorithms are a mystery to much of the population, and the numbers do not necessarily bear out the argument the sisters have been repressed. The liberal site ThinkProgress analyzed Facebook data showing the sisters’ page received more interactions during a month when the sisters claimed censorship than at the same time a year before.
But you know what else is a mystery? Diamond and Silk. Who are they? Or, who were they? Their favorite response to even basic biographical questions has been “None of your business!”
Diamond and Silk did not talk to us for this story. They did not return voice mails, emails, or messages sent through intermediaries. When reached via phone, Silk hung up. We drove to find them in their small town in the Sandhills of North Carolina, and instead found ourselves peering through the dusty window of their family’s church and herbal store, where a statue of the Virgin Mary was displayed alongside a statue of a bald eagle, near a shelf of diet books self-published by their mother.
All were for sale, and all were somehow related to this story, which is the story of Diamond and Silk, the story of belief and opportunism in America.
Spend enough time scrolling through the Facebook comments on Diamond and Silk’s page, or looking through photos from their tour stops, and you will notice most of their fans are white. White women, middle-aged, leaving comments like, “God bless you two! Love, love these ladies!”
In a way, it is not surprising. Trump is deeply unpopular among African-Americans – he won 8 percent of the black vote – and this is a sensitive topic for some of his supporters. The devotion of two black women to a man whose campaign was rife with accusations of racism gives Diamond and Silk cultural cachet, and they know it.
At an appearance last month at Liberty University, a bastion of mostly-white Christian conservatism, Diamond addressed the tittering audience: “I know you all are wondering: Where did these two black girls come from?”
They have described the Democratic Party as a “plantation” that represses African-American voters who hold different opinions. They say they want Trump to protect them from terrorists. They have never publicly disagreed with a Trump policy or a position. (The campaign once paid them $1,274 for “field consulting,” according to FEC filings.)
“He gon’ build that wall!” Diamond cheered in that December 2015 rally in Raleigh.
“He gon’ build it!” Silk affirmed.
“He gon’ build it tall!” Diamond said. “He gon’ protect us all!”
Some observers are baffled.
“When I first encountered them, I wasn’t sure what to make of them,” says Corey Fields, a Georgetown University professor who studies race and politics. “Entertaining and engaging performance art? Or befuddling true political endorsement?”
“They have a cadence and rhythm that is entertaining to the broader audience of Donald Trump,” says Leah Wright-Rigeuer, author of the recent book, “The Loneliness of the Black Republican.” “But they largely don’t appeal to black audiences.”
To white voters cringing from accusations of racism, Wright-Rigeuer speculates, Diamond and Silk represent validation: How could Trump have a race problem when these two vibrant, independent black women like him so much?
To Diamond and Silk, the expectation that African-Americans should vote Democrat is just another kind of racism.
“We have our own mind, and we can think for ourselves,” Diamond told the Liberty audience. Anyone who calls Trump a racist is wrong, the sisters say, and anyone who questions their support of the president is racist himself.
“Leftists” in America “feel offended by successful black women who are also conservatives and Donald Trump supporters,” said Rep. Steve King, the Iowa Republican who invited them to testify in the House. “They’ve long zeroed in on black conservatives, so Diamond and Silk are a twofer. And since there are two of them, they’re maybe even a four-fer.”
With their blunt catchphrases and outfits color-coordinated to the liquid in Silk’s wineglass, the sisters can come across as just another act in our era’s 3,000-ring circus. But they get to America’s deepest philosophical questions: Who should speak for whom? How can one measure authenticity? How can we laugh off Diamond and Silk as entertainment when millions of constituents did the same thing with Trump, who is now the leader of the free world?
“Don’t try to wrap your brain around Diamond and Silk,” instructs University of Pennsylvania’s Anthea Butler. “They are what they are.”
Butler’s field of study is religion, with particular focus on women and African-American religious history. When she watches Diamond and Silk, she thinks of televised preachers.
“They’re reminiscent of a time in America when evangelism ruled the TV screen,” she says, “and people felt comfortable seeing people hawk both items and themselves.”
That is Diamond and Silk, as Butler sees it: The religion of Trump meets the business of televangelism.
On a rundown corner a half-hour outside Fayetteville, North Carolina, signs advertise a cluster of businesses under the name Hardaway. There is Hardaway’s Insurance and Financial Services on one sign, Hardaway’s Herb Garden on another. There used to be a Hardaway Auto Sales on the same spot. The biggest sign is for Jericho Deliverance Temple – the cornerstone of the Hardaway enterprise.
The pastor is Betty Willis Hardaway, who married her husband Freeman nearly 50 years ago and bore five children, including Ineitha and Herneitha, who would go on to be known by their middle names, Lynnette and Rochelle, and then finally their Trump names, Diamond and Silk.
Freeman and Betty, who go by “Elder” and “Evangelist,” are local institutions in this community, where the only downtown businesses open on the weekend are two bail bonds shops. For decades, the couple has evangelized through homemade videos, sitting side by side and preaching directly into the camera.
“Praise the Lord, Praise the Lord,” Betty said in a video posted on Facebook in March. “What a blessing it is to be able to come into your homes today.”
Outside their home, down a winding unpaved road, a large permanent sign is staked into the sandy ground, which is carpeted with pine needles. “WELCOME to the home of the INTERNATIONAL TELE-EVANGELIST,” it says above a photo of the couple. “Elder & Evangelist Hardaway Being Knit Together In Love.”
“Pastor Hardaway, she’s been a leader in the community,” says J.A. McKinnie, a minister at a nearby church. “She’s got an excellent singing voice. They’re real people of God.”
They are also concerned about the salvation of your waistline. Hardaway’s Herb Garden sells both a Colon Cleanse Parasite (for $15.95) and a Super Fat Binder Package (for $79.95).
“Your face is beginning to look so young,” Freeman said to his wife in one 1994 video, apparently broadcast on public-access television.
“Amen,” Betty replied. “It’s because of all my herbs. Call the number on the screen.”
In addition to the herbs, the Hardaways have sold “blessed dream pillows” and blessed dolls. Or, for a “love offering” of $50, Betty would write your name in her gold-trimmed Bible – an act that could answer prayers. She had just done this for a woman seeking an apartment, she said in the 1994 video, and the woman had found an apartment.
“Get this door wreath,” Betty implored her viewers then. “Get this door wreath that I believe, as a point of contact, will ward off witchcraft.”
“We also accept Master and Visa,” her husband added.
The family was entrepreneurial. One son tried to launch a recording career. A daughter opened a day care. Lynnette (now Diamond) has been listed as the owner of a hair salon; a family acquaintance remembered either her or Rochelle owning an insurance business. The sisters have said they were entrepreneurs, or worked in manufacturing, before becoming Diamond and Silk.
They were also Democrats for many years, like the majority in their “very blue county” outside Fayetteville, said James Davis, chair of the Hoke County Democrats. He knows the Hardaways. He did not know what would have made Diamond and Silk – still Democrats as of 2012 – switch affiliation.
Ron Harman, the county’s GOP chair, remembered Diamond and Silk showing up to a chapter meeting several months before the primary. He had never heard of their videos; he does not know if they were even making them yet. He told them he liked Ben Carson. They said they supported Trump.
“From what I recollect,” Harman says, “it was basically, they felt Trump could get things done.”
Harman, a transplant from California, did not find it unusual for two African-American women to come to the meeting. The way he interpreted his new county, it was full of conservative-leaning folks – pro-life, pro-military – who only voted Democrat out of tradition and felt guilty about leaving the party.
Diamond and Silk came to a few meetings, and Harman saw them again at the district GOP meeting, where they gave speeches lobbying to be delegates at the state convention. He voted for them but they lost.
“I was disappointed,” he said. “They were still new faces, and it was the old faces who ended up delegates.”
That was the last time Harman spoke with them. He always found them very friendly, he said, “but when you talk to them, they’re not doing their shtick.” Seeing them months later on YouTube was his first indication they had gotten big. “I didn’t realize they had such a fantastic act.”
On a recent visit to Jericho Deliverance Temple, the doors were shuttered, despite that it was Sunday. (Betty announces services on Facebook, but they do not happen with regularity, according to neighbors.) Hardaway’s Herb Garden was not open either. Through the windows, the Hardaway family’s wares could be spotted on glass shelves – the Colon Cleanse Parasite, the Fat Binder, a book written by Betty, about her faith and weight loss journey: “Faith Can and Will Move Mountains, Including the Mountains of Fat.”
Call the number on the sign for Hardaway’s Herb Garden, and you are connected to an unrelated telemarketing firm that promises a free Caribbean cruise after completion of a phone survey.
A woman who worked at the beauty shop near the Hardaway family church was circumspect when asked if she knew them.
“No disrespect,” she told a reporter. “But I’m not a part of foolishness. I don’t tolerate foolishness. When you’re acting foolish and talking foolish, I shy away from it. And that’s all I gotta say.”
As it happens, Diamond’s first YouTube video about Trump was not her first YouTube video ever. Her first was a short, quiet montage about police brutality, set to music and titled “Black Lives Matter.” It has received 17,000 views. A video filmed soon after concerned Sandra Bland, an African-American woman whose hanging death in a Texas jail spawned allegations of police brutality. It has received 32,000 views.
After that came the video for which she invited Silk to join her. They titled it “Let’s stump for Donald Trump: he is the only one who will secure the damn border.” It has received 338,000 views.
Their digital congregation grew exponentially when they talked Trump, and that is what they have done ever since. Within days of being called up to join Trump onstage at the North Carolina rally, Silk posted on Facebook: “Some are not mentally equipped to go where I’m about to grow.”
To which her mother commented: “Bien dicho.” Spanish for “well said.”
In January 2016, at a rally in Des Moines, Trump noted Diamond and Silk had become “very famous and very rich” while preaching his gospel. Famous, certainly. Rich? Hard to say. The large brick-and-stone home registered to Rochelle since long before her fame lies at the end of a long gated drive. On Monday, there were cars around back but no other signs of life.
Perhaps the sisters were getting ready to broadcast that night’s Facebook Live video. It featured an interview with the male candidate challenging Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., a black woman who has been one of Trump’s fiercest critics. Diamond and Silk opened the broadcast promising to bring “the truth to the light” in their testimony before Congress. They talked about bullying and silencing of conservatives and Christians. They said they now traveled with “executive protection.” They directed viewers – over 160,000 of them – to their website.
“While you’re over there,” Diamond says, “make sure you click the SHOP NOW button.”
In addition to Visa and MasterCard, they also accept PayPal.
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