For the past three summers, a caravan of pals and I have made the pilgrimage from Nashville to Chicago to partake in the wonder of Pitchfork Music Festival together. It’s a tradition I’ve come to look forward to each year, dancing carefree to the music of Sufjan Stevens, Ms. Lauryn Hill, Solange, Anderson .Paak, Blood Orange, Noname, and more. It’s a healing time.
Late one night last summer, my friends and I were returning from Union Park, lazily crossing the Michigan Ave bridge to go down by the water for a bit as we waited on our ride. Gleaming in the night sky, a chrome and overcompensating Tr*mp Tower loomed above us across the bridge. The crowd cris-crossed in all directions as pedestrians passed and paused to take photos. What happened next spanned all of 5 seconds.
I glance up at the tower and in a knee-jerk sort of rage, raise a gentle middle finger to it and continue walking. Hurrying towards me in the opposite flow of foot traffic comes an old white man — wearing white shorts, a white polo, white shoes and socks, and a white visor — who leans in close to my ear and whispers gruffly, I saw that. And then in the rush of the crowd he is gone.
My stomach drops.
I am shaking, cemented to the sidewalk. I am dizzy with fear, anger, embarrassment. After a few seconds, I catch up to my friends headed down the steps to the pier and fumble through retelling what happened. Half laughing at the absurdity of the interaction, still shaky and scared, I begin to cry. They offer me assuring words, but the look in their eyes was questioning — Do you think you’re overreacting, Mele?
This is a memory I return to and try to parse out often. What was it that made me react so strongly? I replay those 5 seconds in my mind, meditating on how ambivalent a comment it was. I saw that. It could go either way. Was he for me or against me? My gut said against. My gut knew better. Who barges at a girl in this way and is not trying to intimidate? What white stranger tells a black stranger his eyes are on her, if not to police her actions? To identify himself as civilian surveillance? I tell the more forgiving corner of my mind this was not some clumsy nod of solidarity. The words weren’t innocuous. He knew the intended effect.
I think the anonymity was the most unnerving part, how he just disappeared into the crowd while the sunken feeling lingered with me. This one interaction widens, the feeling of being watched from all angles expands, like zooming further and further out on an online map.
The morning after the 2016 election, I skipped class and took a long walk to lament and pray alone. Watching strangers on the street, I thought about all of the people who voted, all of the strangers I would return to in America who had signed off on this. Who threw my Black body to the wolves. Every person held that possibility. To every white stranger on the street came the passing thought — Do you hate me, too? Are you my enemy?
These things I’m (still) struggling to understand are made clearer in the words of others. Where my tendency had been to self-gaslight (a toxic mental gymnastics I am condemning and unlearning), their reflections make me feel less alone, they stabilize and sacredize. My anxieties are not unfounded.
Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah’s acute awareness and placement of self in her (Pulitzer winning!) piece “A Most American Terrorist: The Making of Dylann Roof” is a thing of art. Sitting in the pews of Roof’s childhood church, she notes:
This black body of mine cannot be furtive. It prevents me from blending in. I cannot observe without being observed.
On the face of it, it’s inconsequential. … It happened on an ordinary day in an ordinary place. But that’s also the reason it stings: precisely because of that ordinariness.
… We are not safe even in the most banal place. We are not equal even in the most common circumstances. We are always five minutes away from having our lives upended. Racism is not about actively doing stuff to you all the time — it’s also about passively keeping you on tenterhooks.
For blacks in white terrain, all spaces are charged. … We wander alert, and pay a heavy psychic toll for that vigilance. Can’t relax, black.
I’m still figuring out what to do with all of this, learning the ways of peace and embodiment and self-care beneath the weight of wandering alert. As much as I am able, I deliberately choose to enter spaces where I feel seen and not watched, dancing carefree on the grounds of a public park, being healed.
And — “Do you belong?”
I do, I do