The past is never perfect
Photo by Paul Zoetemeijer on Unsplash
Relief washed over me, followed by feelings of euphoria. I had completed the first laborious draft of my memoir on December 1st, 2020. It addressed themes of migration, faith, and race. A week later, the police shooting of Casey Goodson Jr, 23 forced me to question again the difference in policing procedures from the British practice. Such deaths still disturb me after fifteen years in America.
A lifetime of living in different communities has reinforced my belief that groups do what works best for them. As an in-comer, I’ve followed the adage: When in Rome, do as the Romans do -if you can. I am still trying to grapple with the use of guns and the undertow of racial unease in American life.
Interacting with the British police never made me afraid, as these true stories show.
While visiting London, police stopped my black friend for a traffic check. He handed over his driving license. Within five minutes, the cop returned and said: “Have a good evening, sir,” waving us on. We wished him a good evening too.
As we drove off, my friend, a senior manager, laughingly explained that his expensive car always attracted the police in certain areas. The officer’s smile and courtesy masked a negative stereotype of black people.
Another time, I was unaware that I had parked over two feet of yellow lines that were newly drawn. I felt that the two traffic cops were unfair to charge me. I wrote their number and announced that I’ll be reporting them to the Chief Constable. No one shouted, and I paid for the ticket.
My interactions with the police even when adversarial were edged with humor and respect. I witnessed my proudest moment by three Guyanese nationals. We went to the French Embassy for visas; then asked a police officer for directions to the Netherlands consulate. We had walked about a block when another police officer asked us if we were looking for the consulate.Surprised, we nodded yes, but asked: “how did you know?” He jokingly replied that we were given the wrong information and re-directed us. My visiting companions were gobsmacked. British policing at its best even in a high stress area.
These experiences stand in vivid contrast to the current American narrative. As a reaction to the summer protests, I viewed my personal experience of racism in Europe through rose-colored glasses.
Did color blindness cause me to forget, or did I forget to become color blind?
The tragic events on December 8th triggered deep reflection on my experience of racism in Europe I realized I had excluded from my draft four episodes of racial attacks. Even in the intimate sharing of courtship, when we discussed family, religion, finances, and myriad other topics, they were never mentioned to my white partner.
Now, distressed by the frequency of these incidents, recollections of when I also felt victimized flooded my mind. Did color blindness cause me to forget, or did I forget to become color blind?
The first time racists singled me out, I was on a Margate train with three white girlfriends, Jane, Sophie, and Rachel, who lived with me. Jane and I sat facing Rachel and Sophie. Amid our chatter, I felt pressure across my head as if I were hit. My seat did not have an overhead rack, so I dismissed that idea. Distracted by the peculiar sensation in my head, I half-listened to the surrounding banter.Suddenly, we were startled by a shout from Sophie: “Don’t you dare!”
She had interrupted one teenager with his raised hand, about to land bulky newspapers on my head. He and his friends immediately moved to a seat threatening another lady. We called the conductor.
The loutish pranks of the youths annoyed us and distressed me. As my friends resumed the conversation, I wondered what would have happened if I were alone? What would have happened if I were a black young man? Who would have believed him he had been attacked without provocation?
I traveled the train scores of times uneventfully. I include the times when a man in the crowded throngs of rush hour commute will seize the closeness of any female, forced to stand next to him, to stimulate himself.
Once, I could get a good look at the offender. He looked normal, briefcase in one hand, wearing a well-fitted off-the-rack suit. His other hand held the overhead strap, leaving him free for his pelvic maneuvers. I made eye contact and scowled. I saw the color change above his white crisp collar, but he did not move apart from me. What would his wife say if she knew?
Yet this incident did not terrify me. I was a woman, blackness did not matter. This was not unfamiliar to commuting women in congested spaces.
The second time, I was on the top bunk of my sleeper train in Calais. It was not the Orient Express, but I was excited. The next morning, I’ll be in the South of France at a beautiful Chateau that sheltered the French Resistance in World War 2.
My friend Rachel was below me, and there was an English-speaking French chef on the other couchette.
The door opened, and irate French voices filled the cabin. When the couple left, I told Rachel that they did not want to share the cabin with a black woman. She thought I was overreacting because I didn’t understand French well. We checked our tickets and prepared to settle down again.
They returned with the conductor. He himself checked our tickets and confirmed we were in the right compartment. Undeterred, the lady looked at me and ranted angrily. The conductor left with them.
The chef confirmed she used racial insults but dismissed the incident: “She’s crazy. You don’t pay attention to mad people”. I didn’t until we disembarked in the morning in a small station with not a soul in sight.
In eight days, we will board this train at 1 A.M. It is unlikely that there will be an official there. How are we going to find our couchette? My anxieties rose despite my attempts to be rational. Every day, I was happy until I remembered the incident at Calais, and then my fears which I kept secret would rise.
When our vacation was over, I left the Castle with some trepidation to returning to England. My friend and I easily found our couchette, and my dread of another racist confrontation melted away.
Sometimes, the reality is so unreal that one needs a witness to validate that the mind is not playing a trick
My next encounter with racism was also in France. My fiancé was late to meet my train at the Gare de Nord Station.
I left the platform to wait with my luggage in the concourse. Slouched against a pillar in the station, I scrutinized the rush hour crowds streaming across the station to the elevators, taking them to the metro cars below.
A short, fashionably dressed middle-aged lady, muttering to herself, abruptly changed course. I wondered what she had forgotten on the platform as she headed in that direction. Then when I thought she was about to pass me, I felt a fist on my chest. In my confusion, I heard her angry French as she retraced her step to join the crowds rushing towards the escalators.
Sometimes, the reality is so unreal that one needs a witness to validate that the incident is not illusory.
I looked around me and caught the gaze of a white gentleman standing against another column. He was blushing. He gestured eloquently with two fingers pointing to his head: She is a nutcase. We did not speak, but his acknowledgment he had seen this sudden, spontaneous attack reassured me. I did not dream or imagine it and was grateful that she did not have a knife.
On my last day in England, I went to the foreign exchange desk at my Bank. Usually, there is a dedicated line for the exchange window. The teller was missing, so I joined the main queue. When the teller came to the window, she looked at me and I moved to her station. I visited that window dozens of times, before.A loudmouthed man upbraided me for not waiting my turn, demanding that people like me “should learn how it is done.” If we could not, we should return to our native land.
His obnoxious voice boomed out as he sought approval from the rest of the line. Once again, I did not expect it. Breaking the queue or not waiting your turn is a social sin in Britain, but he did not have to elevate it to a racial crime.
His outburst made me think I had misread the teller’s gestures. I paused in my transactions, uncertain how to proceed. After a long second, the teller intervened. She quietly affirmed that she had called me to the window. His tirade evaporated quicker than a fizzle from a champagne bottle, leaving an uncomfortable silence.
When I left the bank, I saw him in the town square and changed my route to the car. I was afraid in a country in which I had lived before he was even born.
The menace and hatred that underlined his words stole my sense of safety and my innocence. Despite my shock at the unpleasant exchange, I told no one as if to talk about it would be a reflection on them too.
These four acts of racial aggression challenged my assumption that in my life, my color was not a big deal. I was naïve and blasé. I might not think my blackness is noteworthy, but for some people, it is my defining attribute.
On that, I’m judged or attacked. Ayot made similar observations in
What is even worse, is that my sense of self was irrelevant. Folks who wanted a white world were keen to assign me a place of their choosing.
It is not uncommon for abuse survivors to feel blamed for being victims or to blame themselves. While the violence I experienced was very different, in hindsight, I’m surprised that my reaction was based on three assumptions.
* The incidents were never discussed with my friends, not even those who were with me. I realized I did not want them to minimize or dismiss how I felt. How could I share my concerns about my male relatives being unfairly blamed? How could I expect them to empathize? There is no book on “How to live with black skin” to give them ideas.
* Immersed in whiteness-white neighbors, colleagues, church, and friends, my identity rested on competence and adaptability. My self-esteem would have suffered if I was perceived to be too sensitive, incapable, or to attract trouble.
* Bearers of bad news tend not to be welcome. To remind or challenge my friends of the effects of racism might have jeopardized our easy, relaxed relationship. Having folks walking on eggshells would ultimately break our intimacy.
Despite those stories, I enjoyed my British Life. I have enduring friendships and a caring tribe not dependent on skin color or political affiliation. I failed them by never giving them the chance to share these stories.
My life in the United Kingdom was not immersed in racism, but it cast its shadow. Accepting the shade does not detract from the truth that color does not dominate the culture as it does here.
So why did I omit these significant events that made me doubt myself, affected my holiday, and cause me so much heart-searching? After all, a memoir should contain the truth.
A therapist gains important information by what clients omit. I was forced to admit that my omission was significant, but it took me a while to confront my past and deconstruct some adjustments I made in my English life.
The omission seemed accidental, but the absence of the stories protected my illusion of harmonious living in Europe. The reason is really simple: I was running into the past to escape the pressures of the present.
In direct contrast, for the first time in my life, the color of my skin seems to matter in America. Sometimes it is requested like in a 911 call, other times less obvious; but everywhere in a restaurant or doctor’s waiting room lurks the contemptuous look or murmurings waiting to be voiced.
I know that some folks have misgivings about Loving v. Virginia, 388 U.S. 1 (1967) so for me, a life lived in color is complex.
Imagine my distress when I learned that Abraham Lincoln, my teenaged hero, considered me inferior.
At fourteen, I memorized his Gettysburg address. Recently, when I read his debate with Stephen Douglas, I felt demeaned.
Living in these States has increased my awareness of how race connects me to the world outside my doors. Despite its dispiriting effects, I had a healthy marriage and am truly blessed to have wonderful friends. These authentic relationships keep the promise of melting pot America alive.
Learning from my past, I’m now more vulnerable with people despite the cost. I respect my friends enough to share my struggles and actively seek their help to understand. Sometimes, the sub-conscious narratives of our past would offer different perspectives, but we can each light the room.
Accepting the challenges of the present enables me to escape the lure of the perfect past in Britain. In the future, this present, here in America, with its patchwork of problems and passions, will be my past. I’d like it to be authentic.
We all censor some personal stories. That could be healthy, but we must not bury them and what they signify so deeply that their truths elude us.
How Four Buried Stories Made Me a Better Person was originally published in ILLUMINATION on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.