written july 23, 2018
published november 22, 2018
the subway smells of shit. actually piss. shit and piss. she or he writhes around horizontally scrunched over two seats in the corner. a humble huddled heap of heavily sedated clothes. i know nothing. but i know i feel safer near her than a briefcase. facing the window i see her reflection as her face lifts up. she gone. or she was gone and now she’s floating back. i look away. draped in her massive bleach stained black hood, she disappears between cars. “DO NOT PASS BETWEEN SUBWAY CARS” the sign beckons helplessly as she pulls the door open and then closed behind her. she needs relief. moments later the doors slide apart and in a rebirth she reemerges to slink back into her seat like a contented cat. her corner domain. the man across the aisle, her partner i assume, doesn’t flinch. he sits upright eyes stone closed. every hair on his traveled greasy face pointing a different direction. a shoe shiner’s dream.
where they’ve come from is anyone’s guess, where they’re going, not my business. it doesn’t concern me. they are smack in the middle of their destination. and so am i. i was once told it’s not what you know but who you know. a jolt to realize the inverse is the truth. it’s not who you know, but who you are.
i smell fresh urine. did she bring it in with her or do i smell it through the door? it’s a full train. 2 Local to flatbush i think. a young woman enters to my left and i get up to give her my seat. her wide stroller holds two small children and in her arms, bags. “thank you” she says with a smile. i nod in deference. "if i had another chance at life" sings over the track in my earbuds. tracks whizzing by under my feet.
i am hyperconscious of my male gender, not wanting to give her any uneasy feelings. i don’t look at her again, watching walls wiz by out the window. looking for light. i don’t want to paternalize. i don’t want to sexualize. i want her to feel my acknowledgement of her full humanity and dignity. i know intimately how it feels to robbed of these things daily by unknowing, some knowing, passers by. i feel myself teetering on the tightrope of privilege where i don’t want to be. i see you! i want to shout. i have love for you and respect you as i would a sister! but i know too much to be authentic. i stare out the window. respecting her space. trapped in my male privilege. a privileged victim. a privileged son of male hegemony. group norms are hard to break while we are wired to uphold them for survival. how then do we break and restructure them to establish a more just reality for our children than this one?
my friend in the corner slides to an upright position. her eyelids creak as they open for a glance out the side of her face. she notices the children and she glows. immediately she breathes life, staring lovingly at them.
i interpret this through my awareness, not my gaze. after a minute she stumbles to her feet, dark brown skin glistening with earned sweat and caked experience. baked into the tapestry of her being. a runaway. the runaway. at least 61 ways of describing an enslaved person’s phenotype were found from documents printed by those searching for runaway slaves in the 1830’s in richmond, virginia:
Black, very Black, perfectly black, uncommonly black, quite black, slick black, rusty black, low black, real black, nearly black, not quite black, not entirely black, rather light black, smooth and dark but not black, dark though not very black, tolerable dark, not very dark, chocolate, copper, brown copper, Tawney colour not quite black, Tawny, bright mahogany, gingerbread, light gingerbread, rather brown, light brown, Brown, dark Brown, dark Brown (not a mulatto), Brown approaching a mulatto, Brown neither black nor mulatto, between black and mulatto, dark mulatto, rather dark mulatto, brown mulatto, red mulatto, mulatto, bright almost a mulatto, Bright mulatto, pretty bright mulatto, tolerable bright mulatto, very bright mulatto, bright mulatto very white for a slave, dark yellow, Yellow, yellow not mulatto, bright, tolerable bright, light, very light, sallow, coloured, light coloured, half white, two thirds white, nearly white (rothman, 2003, p. 204).
i’d call her a tolerable dark. she glides over, speaks in spanish to the young woman - light brown skinned, heavy-set, in her twenties, likely described as a very bright mulatto were this 188 years ago. she smiles back and they’re clearly talking about the children. i have my headphones in and tune out, looking through the window with my brown mulatto eyes.
my nostrils are over taken by the smell of fresh defecate. nostrand avenue. many get off the train. i find a seat. my backpack is heavy.
it is refreshing to be ignored. to have space to call my own even in public. even on a packed train. i need the solitude of having my personal space respected, where i don’t have to feel like a runaway. not forced to produce my free papers upon every public appearance. i am thus able to experience the moment, without having my resources devoted to figuring out how to combat the invasive stares so common in smaller cities and towns. it is a privilege to be in public and have people assume your humanity, your dignity, or just simply not pay you the slightest mind. when people stare in smaller cities and towns, they are often searching for understanding. calculating their risk. running me through a filter to feel safe in my presence, making me unsafe in theirs. here, i don’t need to justify my existence. don’t need to produce my free papers to demanding and racist others.
two indigenous native boys, aged 19 and 17, drove 7 hours to do a campus tour at colorado state university recently. they were approached by a racist parent on the tour who questioned them about their potential studies, demanding their free papers. when she was met with silence, or at least not the forthcoming answers she expected, she called 911. the boys were detained by police, questioned, and released when they explained they were there as potential students to tour campus. they must be runaways. their owner is probably looking for them, she thought.
grier and cobbs tell of a black high school student who, though receiving “a scholarship to a prestigious eastern school,” chose a “small Negro college of modest reputation located in the South.” the young man explained that “If I go East, I can never come back” (p. 142). clearly the boy had wisdom that, were he to go east, his very being would be forever altered, and he would lose his most precious foundation of belonging, to therefore be always at the mercy of a crooked and dominating society. maybe avoiding this was his running away. towards freedom and away from bondage. his liberation lay right where he left it. the diamonds, in his own backyard.
at 13 i decided to runaway. i got about 7 miles before the wicked weight of samo put me on the phone crying for capture. begging for the return of my psychological bit. from hooks:
to be in touch with the senses and emotions beyond conquest is to enter the realm of the mysterious. this is the oppositional location basquiat longed for yet could not reach. this is the feared location, associated not with meaningful resistance but with madness, loss, and invisibility. basquiat's paintings evoke a sense of dread. but the terror there is not for the world as it is, the decentered, disintegrating west, that familiar terrain of death. no, the dread is for that unimagined space, that location where one can live without the "same old shit" (hooks, p. 35).
i must have feared a fully human status. they say better the devil you know. better to remain in masochistic submission to the “paternalistic cannibal” of white supremacy (hooks, p. 34). addicted to being treated like shit. following fanon and yancy, i wonder, does this mean that i symbolized bodily excrement (yancy, 2018)? in the minds of my family was i ontologically associated with “all of those things that, for the most part, force us to recoil” (p. 43)? if so, did i not then also represent the clearing of waste - as in the means by which the whites around me rid themselves of toxins; of their toxic and racist antiblack hatred?
as in a defecation between train cars, i was hidden. enclosed in a private, illicit space of transmogrification. always already needing to be relieved of. always already needing to be transformed. not allowed to be black, not able to be white. forever stuck between cars. perpetually stepped over like a “living piece of shit” (yancy, 2018, p. 43). memphis was my destination, but colorado my location. i knew if i don’t go east, i will never have a home. i knew that if i did not escape whiteness before my molding years were through, i would never find belonging in blackness; that i could “never come back.” in touch with my “emotions beyond conquest” i reached for the unimaginable space.
william h. grier and price m. cobbs. black rage. 1992.
bell hooks. outlaw culture. 1994.
joshua d. rothman. notorious in the neighborhood: sex and families across the color line in virginia, 1787 - 1861. 2003.
george yancy. backlash: what happens when we talk honestly about racism in america. 2018.