When Racism meets Rage
Trudging through the subway, the music blaring in my headphones drown the words of a white man seated on the bench, passionately saying something to a black man seated right next to him. I remove one ear bud to listen.The black man springs up suddenly.
“My nigga, I said GO AROUND!” he yells.
There are empty seats next to them both, but you get the sense that this might be about more than seats. It might be about comfort, space, respect. He sees me looking at him in curiosity, we lock eyes for a second. I want to get involved, but I’m not sure it’s the right thing to do. I had just found out the key witness in Botham Jean’s trial against the white female police officer was murdered in what seemed to be a revenge killing. I was angry, like this man, on the inside. I wanted him to know that I was angry too. That man needed to move around, and neither of us wanted to hear shit from him about it. I hoped my tear-filled gaze communicated that, even as I walked away, my legs turning to jello from the guilt.
If I had stayed I would have gotten involved. With zero context, I would have yelled too.
“Go the fuck around! You heard the man!”
I wanted a confrontation. I wanted his rage to meet mine so badly. No more polite smiles in the train and business as usual. You have a bone to pick with us? Let’s pick it.
I’m tired of swallowing my rage, but I’m too deeply afraid of it. The brink of insanity is not a pleasant place to be, where you could turn into a screaming cursing storm at a stranger in the blink of an eye. He thinks it’s about the seat. It’s about what he represents. It’s the fact that I am so tired of this power he believes he has, that he must be so comfortable at all times while I live in perpetual discomfort, why he can’t fulfil one simple request, give me one tiny sliver of respect…
I felt this before. There was a woman walking up and down the streets of Brooklyn, near Dekalb Avenue, making a speech at the top of her lungs. Her words laced with profanity and her voice trembling with passion, she bared her scars, raising real issues in a blunt and jagged way.
“Black people, we need to wake up! You’re sleeping with them, and where are they when you are suffering? Who’s by your side then? They build stores in our communities, then they disrespect us! They don’t ever disrespect me! They know not to fuck with me!”
I knew she was not mad. It was we who were mad. We who watched in shock and wonder, we who laughed and scoffed at her message, we who scorned and shunned her because those words made us uncomfortable. We without the strength to lose our respectability for the sake of the eternal fight. We who kept our rage in the friendzone and never began an intimate relationship with it.
I stopped. I listened. I looked at her. I didn’t budge when she came near me. I witnessed her, and saw myself in her. I was stung by the looks of amusement and disdain, while perhaps she was not. Where she stood was past the point of shame, needing validation from every onlooker. She spoke not because people listened or cared, but because she had the right to speak. I admired her as she disappeared into the crowds, her chilling sermon lingering behind.
Then there was the man in the PATH train. I had locked eyes with him mere minutes before, admired the necklaces around his neck, noticed the ones in his hands. He was dark skinned and bald, nicely dressed, a shadow of sorrow in his brown eyes.
Eventually a homeless man shuffled down the aisle, a cup outstretched for money. A white woman opposite the necklace man got up to tuck a bill into the homeless man’s cup, then sat down again. He smiled, thanked her, and shuffled off.
“He’s not even homeless, I seen him before, he’s not homeless,” necklace man said.
“Oh, okay,” the white lady responded.
“You wanna give money to a guy who’s not homeless, but you can’t buy something from me, an artist.”
“Oh, you made those? They’re really beautiful.”
“Yes, I made them. I made them and I sell them. But you all don’t buy it.”
“Yeah, I think I’ve seen you before…”
“You’ve seen me before, so why you didn’t buy anything, huh?”
“Uh, maybe next time. They’re really beautiful.”
“No, no maybe next time! Why you didn’t buy anything?! You think I want your money? I don’t want your money! Keep your money! I don’t need it. I’m rich.”
She stopped answering, and by now the whole train had tensed up.
“I’m rich and I’m the best artist in the world. I don’t need you to buy shit from me.”
I sat with the awkwardness, felt sorry for him, for what he was trying to say behind the words that everyone heard. They were probably part amused, part indignant. Here was this person being cocky and rude to a white lady who was only trying to be nice to him. Who was he to be cocky and rude? That was reserved for the wealthy, for the white and the upper echelons.
Who was he to proclaim himself as the best? That was reserved for rappers, and those with tangible success.
But most importantly, who was he to become delusional in a world of white supremacy?
The responsibility to maintain our sanity and our motivation to live, live peaceably, live politely among these modern civil racists, weighs heavily on us. As I exited the train that evening, I heard a white man’s voice scoff “I don’t wanna fucking hear that.”
His words, his voice, his sentiment, filled me with dread. There it was, a white man’s anger at a black man’s cockiness. That anger was so historically demonic. That anger lynched us, and never stopped. That anger has never been remorseful, has never been bridled, and continues to haunt our waking moments even when it rests in the depths of their soul.
That angry white man’s words gave me visions. Brown cotton dresses and tall poplar trees and blood spattered hands and chewed tobacco and long black guns and bonfires over burning crosses and the cross I wear around my own neck and Charlottesville and chariots that swing low, my only means to escape them.