*An essay a week in 2017*
Date: March 22nd
Time: some time between 9:30 and 10am
Location: NYC, downtown express A train, between the 207th & 125th Street stops
My hands are shaking as I type this. I tried to write it in my journal but my hand was trembling too hard to hold the pen. I’m on the A train, heading to Queens to teach. I’m in the corner seat. There are three seats in this section. White man comes in on Dyckman/200th Street and sits two seats away from me, leaving one between us. He looks at the bag I have on the seat. It’s the paper bag that my oatmeal was in. The oatmeal I am preparing in my lap, adding the nuts and dried fruit and agave. Out of the corner of my eye, I see him look from the bag to me and back to the bag. I ignore him. It’s too early and the train isn’t yet crowded—my bag isn’t keeping anyone from sitting. I finish preparing my oatmeal. When I’m done, I move the bag. He looks over as I do so. He goes back to reading on his phone. White words against a black background.
I eat my oatmeal as the train gets increasingly crowded. I am grateful for my seat in the corner.
A young brown man enters the train on 175th. He wears torn jeans, a jean jacket to match, a hoody underneath. He has the hood of his sweatshirt pulled over his cap, big earphones on over the hoody. (Later I will notice that his cap reads: “Trump Central Wollman Rink” and I will giggle to myself at the irony of this.) He looks around for a seat.
Young man comes to squeeze in between the white man and me, pinned against the wall. I move over to make room. Young man turns to me, says, excuse me. I nod. He goes back to his phone. He is leaning over, resting his elbows on his legs. I see the white man. He’s red now. That’s when he starts talking hatred. He says things like Rikers and criminals and punks and handcuffs and fuck you up.
All this young man has done is have the audacity to sit in an empty seat.
The young brown man is all in his phone. He has headphones on. The good kind that keep his music in and the noise out.
The white man keeps grumbling.
The train stops at 145th. Young man across from me gets off the train. Young man next to me moves to that seat. White man glares at him. Young man notices. Says: “Excuse me sir, is there a problem?”
White man says “No, you have a problem?” Barely looks up.
Young man says: “Because I paid the same fare you did.”
White man swallows his lips, flares his nostrils. His ears are getting red again. “You have a problem?”
Young man says: “Because if you have a problem…”
White man says: “Go ahead. I have three uniforms under this. You’ll go right to Rikers.”
Young man says: “I don’t give a fuck if you NYPD. I’ll fuck you up.”
I lean over so young man can see my face. I put up my hand. “Don’t do that. It’s not worth it. He’s not worth it.”
White man says: “Oh, I’m worth it. He’s not.”
I turn my attention to the white man. I go in. Call him what he is: a racist. Tell him I heard what he was mumbling. “Your badges and uniforms don’t give you the right to treat people like that.”
He says: “Yeah, everyone’s racist, right?”
I say, “No, you are. You.” My tone is even and sharp. I do not yell. I stare right at him.
He does not look at me. Says: “Run a zoo for 30 years like I do and you’ll understand.” The zoo he speaks of is Rikers. The inmates are the animals.
I say: “Understand what? Your racism?”
He mocks me, says: “Yeah yeah, the system failed everyone, right?”
“No, but it failed you. That’s why you’re racist.”
He curses at me. Says something about “fuckin'” this and “fuckin'” that.
“Don’t curse at me.” I say. “I have not cursed at you. Your badge doesn’t give you the right to be disrespectful.” He frowns but still does not look at me. I continue: “You’re talking to the wrong one.”
“I don’t care,” he says. He’s still staring at his phone.
“I know you don’t care. Racists don’t care. Have you heard of the school to prison pipeline? I’m a teacher. I see you. Educate yourself.”
He sucks his teeth but says nothing. He does not look at me. The entire train car is quiet from from 125th to 59th street.
For the rest of the ride I imagine smacking him repeatedly with Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow.
If only it were that easy to cure someone of their ignorance.
We approach 59th street.
Brown man gets up. He approaches and puts out his hand. He clasps the hand I extend with both hands, as if hugging them, me. He bows his head. Says: “Thank you.” I say, “Respect. You take care of yourself.” He thanks me again and smiles. He does not look at that racist white man again. White man does not look at him.
White woman as she exits train looks at me and says: “Good job.” I wonder: Where were you?
Brown woman gets on with her toddler. White man gets up to give her the seat, as if to say, “Look, I’m not racist.” Brown woman across from me looks at me and shakes her head. I wonder: And where were you?
White man gets off at 42nd. I look up. He does not look at me. Beyond his head I see an ad that reads: “Stories about your city from the people who’ve seen it all.” I think how appropriate and fucked up at the same time.
This too is a story of this city…
White man exits the train.
I make eye contact with a handsome, bald black man who witnessed the whole thing. He says: “You have to ignore people like that.”
I noticed him watching as I schooled the white man. He wears an expensive suit, his tie is perfectly knotted. He has well oiled hands and two big gold rings that glint when he moves. His face is concerned.
I shake my head, tell him somebody had to say something. Tell him that happens too often. Tell him about the racism that spewed out of the white man’s mouth. Say: “I had to show that young man that he’s not alone. That somebody cares. Our young people walk around so wounded in the world. If we don’t take care of them, who will?” He smiles, says bless you, something about “I love y’all strong women.” And I wonder why it’s so often on us. Why didn’t he say something sooner? Where were you?
He says: “Don’t let that ruin your day.” I say no, “I’m a writer, imma wrote an essay about his ass. Imma use this in my work because that’s how you effect change…but we gotta stand up for our kids,” I say. I am almost pleading. “They need us.” He nods. Puts the earphones back in his ears.
I wonder what he’s seen that’s made him choose silence… I imagine none of it is good. So many of us have learned silence as a method of self-preservation.
Later, when the train has emptied and the train is snaking underground in Brooklyn, the black man will ask me what I teach, where, what age. I tell him my youngest student was six, my oldest 86. His eyes open wide, brow arches, says, “That’s social work.” He thanks me. Says: “Stay strong, sis. We need people like you.” I smile. “Our young people need people like you too.” He nods. Says: “I’ll try to remember that.” He gets off the train on Euclid.
I go teach. I spend the day remembering the many encounters of racism I’ve had in this city I love and hate at once.
I was on the 7 train one Saturday morning on my way to a teaching gig with my daughter who was then maybe 9 or 10. It was one of those horrible “pardon us while we handle some necessary construction” days on that line where you have to travel well into Queens before taking another train back to get to one of the many stops the train skipped due to said construction. The train was crowded. Folks were frustrated. A woman stepped on and started pushing her way in. She pushed me too though I wasn’t even by the door. I looked at her and she started yelling, in a thick European accent: “you people” aren’t taught manners and “you people” come to this country to do this and do that and “you people” need to go back to “your country.” She pushed me again with her shoulder.
With one hand I put my daughter behind me while I stared at this woman. I said: “You, an immigrant, are telling me about who I am? That’s funny. If you put your hands on me again, we are going to have a problem.”
“Then get out of the way,” she yelled.
“I’m not in your way.” I responded, this time my lips were tight and I was clenching the pole so hard, my hand was cramping.
She kept yapping her mouth, saying that we need to go get jobs and we’re all criminals and deadbeats…but she didn’t touch me again.
Baby girl stared on with wide eyes. Later she said: “How could that woman say that to us? She’s not from here either.” I tried to explain but what could I do to fully explain a system that teaches people that it’s us brown and black folk that are the problem?
I wonder if that woman with her white skin and blonde hair had ever been told to go back to her country.
This happened to me a few times when I lived in the Pelham Parkway area in the Bronx. One time, at the fruit and vegetable market, an elderly Eastern European woman pushed my toddler out of her way with a hateful glare. My daughter was just three years old. She was picking an apple out of a pile like I’d asked her to. I pulled baby girl towards me and told this woman, “How dare you touch my child.”
“You people need to control all your kids,” she said, her accent also heavy.
“You’re lucky you’re an old, lady,” I said.
Later, when I caught her glaring at us on line, I laughed in her face. Why? Because it kept me from doing what I really wanted to do—cry and beat her to a pulp.
You remember these moments with tears in your eyes and rage in your jaw. The slideshow in your mind makes you grind your teeth. You put gum in your mouth to ease the tension.
You realize you have to do something with this rage and pain over the racism you encountered on the train, and the memories that came cascading in. You channel it into your high school fiction class, reworking your entire lesson plan on your commute from Queens to East Harlem. You have your eleven students read the flash piece “My Brother at the Canadian Border” by Sholeh Wolpé. You engage a conversation about race. You share what happened to you on the train. What you witnessed. What you said. How you went in on that white man.
You ask: “By a show of hands, who has ever witnessed or been a victim of racism?” You wince when eleven hands go up. You ask if anyone wants to share their story. No one volunteers. They squirm uncomfortably in their seats. You understand. You think of the black man on the train.
You nod. Say: “I understand. Can someone tell me why they don’t want to share their story?”
“Shame,” says a student. You remember him from last semester. The day after the election, someone called him a n*gger for the first time in his life. He had just walked out of his building in East Harlem. He told you he went back upstairs and curled himself into his bed. He stayed there for a long time. “I was late to school,” he told you.
“It makes you feel a certain type of way,” says another student.
You ask if they want to write a story about racism as a class. They come up with three characters and the setting: James, a black and Puerto Rican 16 year old; Emily, a white 16 year old friend of James; a 60 year old white man named Sam; the setting is the M102 which travels from the East Village to Harlem 147th, via Lexington and Madison Avenues. They begin…
James and Emily are on their way to school downtown. They are discussing Trump’s Muslim ban and immigration policies. Sam interrupts them: “What are you saying about Trump?” Emily whispers to James: “He kind of looks like Trump.” James asks: “What do you think about the travel ban?” Sam says: “Black people should leave instead…” He looks at Emily and says: “What are you doing hanging out with that black boy?”
After two rounds, where everyone adds a sentence to the building story, you stop them. They are angry and excited. One student says: “But it doesn’t have to be like that…” She is a writer. The one who says you gave her permission to call herself a writer. She wants the story to play out differently. She wants people not to remain silent on the bus. She wants the people to defend the black young man who is being attacked. You ask: “Is that believable?” She sulks. You remember the incident you experienced that morning. You remember the silence of the people on the train.
The final assignment: Finish the story in your journals. Even the kid who says he hates writing has his pen flying across the page…
You remember: This is how you channel the hurt and shift it to something that feeds and teaches, because if you don’t have that, what do you have?…
I’d been in Wellesley for all of a few weeks when it first happened. It was the fall of 1989, my first year in boarding school. I was walking with another ABC (A Better Chance) student back to our dorm on the outskirts of the Wellesley College campus. We were the “scholarship kids”—her a St. Lucian girl from Flatbush, me a Boricua Hondureña from Bushwick. We were walking along Washington Avenue, the main street that runs through the town, past the Town Hall that looks like a castle, and the duck pond. I don’t remember what we were talking about or if we were even talking, but I remember hearing the rumble of the truck as it approached, and I remember that face he stuck out of the passenger side window, that bloated and red and hate-filled face. The truck slowed. “Go home, n*ggers,” he said. Then he threw a lit cigarette at us, two teenage girls, her 16, me 13. We jumped away to avoid getting burned and stared at the truck as it sped off. She started crying, a quiet blubbering cry that shook her shoulders. I stayed quiet the rest of the walk home.
We never did talk about that incident, she and I. And I never mentioned it to anyone or wrote about it until a few years ago.
This was the beginning of my racial consciousness.
I told my daughter about the racist situation I encountered on the train that morning. Her eyes opened wide and her mouth opened slightly. She asked, “What did you say to him?”
Me: “To who?”
Her: “The white man who said all that racist stuff.”
Me: “How do you know I said something to him?”
Her: “Uh, hello…you’re my mom. I know you.”
Me: (laughs) I proceeded to give her a play by play.
Her: “I love that about you. You always stand up for yourself and you stand up for other people, too.”
A few months back I witnessed a situation between two cab drivers. A white cab driver had been following a cab driven by a South Asian man. When they reached the red light, I pulled up next to them as the white cab driver got out of his car and banged on South Asian man’s cab. He said something menacing. I don’t know what because my window was rolled up. I rolled down the window as the white man yelled, “Go back to your fuckin country!” The South Asian man drove off when the light turned green. The tires on his cab screeched. He never got out of his car nor did he roll down his window. He just stared straight ahead. His face did not betray emotion. The white man got back in his car, but not before waving his middle finger.
I am still haunted by this. Why? Because I didn’t say anything. It’s not that I’ve never witnessed such heinous acts of prejudice and hostility. It’s that it seems to be happening with more frequency.
We are complicit if we remain silent. All of us.
My daughter had a performance last weekend with her cheerleading dance team at George Washington High School in Washington Heights. After the show, her coach, Ms. Sapp, stopped at a local Dominican restaurant to use the bathroom and buy some food.
She asks one of the Dominican waitresses if they have oxtail. The woman ignores her repeated requests while at the same time attending to other customers who come in after Ms. Sapp. Another waitress walks over and asks: “What do you need?” Ms. Sapp, a black woman who loves her kids, our kids, my kid, with a fierceness and hard hand that I admire and can relate to, asks, “Do you have oxtail?” The waitress answers, “Yes, but it’s expensive.” I imagine Ms. Sapp’s face. She smirks that sarcastic, “I see you” kind of smirk. She has experienced this before. She has been on the receiving end of this kind of racism from Latinos who look just like her but deny their blackness.“I didn’t ask you if it was expensive.” She can’t be bothered. She has a group of cheerleader dancers waiting for her. It is them who need her attention. She walks out. She tells her girls (that’s what she calls them: “my girls”) what happened. She lets them take it in. My daughter shakes her head. Says: “That’s so racist.” Ms Sapp nods, “Yes, yes it is.”
I am working on this essay at the Barnes & Noble on Union Square, at the Starbucks on the third floor. A black man with a thick, salt and pepper beard and a plaid shirt, sits at the table next to me. He is reading on his iPad. His camera sits on the table next to him. A white man approaches. Says: “Nice camera.” Black man looks up and nods. White man says: “They don’t make them like that anymore.” Black man nods again. The white man starts to ask questions, make comments. The black man’s responses are curt, mono-syllabic. White man says: “I was just trying to make conversation.” Black man nods. White man walks away. Black man turns to me. I smirk. He says: “Do I look friendly?” We both laugh. Black man says: “Not to be prejudiced, but they come up to us and they expect us to talk to them. Like we have to…” I nod, say, “Amen.” Black man walks to garbage to throw out his cup. He leaves his iPad and headphones and camera and bag. I think: “Homie is crazy. He’s leaving all his shit.” I watch to make sure no one steals his stuff. He comes back after five minutes, a fresh cup of coffee in his hand. He starts to pack his stuff. Puts his camera in his bag. I say: “It is a nice camera though.” We laugh. He says: “You have a nice day.” I say: “You do the same.”