San Francisco, summer 1974 – a Vignette:
I want to cross the street, stand on the corner of the intersection waiting until the only vehicle in sight passes: a public transit bus. Dressed in my hippie best of long jeans skirt, Biba-of-London top and sandaled feet, I feel the need to show off how amazingly tall I am and how I’m capable of walking model-straight. Meaning I feel grrreat today!
The bus comes to a standstill, right in front of me. The passenger door accordion-flings open and the only human in the bus, the driver who is a Black man, calls at me from his perch at the wheel barely two metres away: ‘I want a smile from you!’ So I give him a big one; he whoop-sings, I shout ‘hi there!’ The bus door folds back shut, the bus accelerates and away it goes.
The road is free for me to cross. Surprised and giddy; my, I was noticed, do I ever feel on top of the world! ~
I wrote this in my little notebook in 1974, during my second visit to the USA. Fast forward to the here and now: 2021.
Questions arise, of course. This is an era where we question, or deconstruct absolutely everything. It’s almost like spontaneous human interactions without looking for hidden intentions are a thing of the past. It’s a minefield out there now. Had I been a white American woman, may I have pulled a ‘Karen’ on this driver, accusing a nearby Black male of trying to assault me (the meme referring to the 2020 Central Park incident for instance, among many others of the kind)? Was he clearly a male chauvinist pig catcalling a woman in the street from the anonymity of his vehicle? Would I be called a racist now that I had specifically mentioned he was Black? Would his boss or his union even allow him to stop the bus for this purpose or would he have been knuckle-rapped because surveillance cameras recorded the incident? Was I asking for trouble, walking the streets alone, ‘strutting my stuff?’ Am I even allowed to perceive this event as a genuine compliment, nothing else? And admit to the joyous feeling his gesture gave me, loving the humor and spontaneous cheekiness momentarily shared between the two of us? Where the colour of our skin had absolutely nothing to do with it? Is flirting with the opposite sex still allowed? Cathérine Deneuve said an emphatic yes to that, part of the backlash to the #Me Too feminism in the Hollywood anti-abuse censorship campaign . . . French, right? The French culture tends to see the American attitude to sex as puritanical and not just a little confused with its mixed messages, but obviously, that’s not to condone aggression or rape – a completely different issue, she made that very clear. Men trying to seduce someone of the opposite sex is part of life, she said, not automatically the equivalent of a macho attack.
This debate was of great interest to me and I wondered where it would land, especially when innocent males can be sentenced in the court of public opinion these days and see their lives destroyed overnight. Millions of angry twitters, chats and posts later, not much was resolved. Can it ever be? Ambition, power and exploitation; ethics and integrity, goodwill and respect; physical aggression and sexual abuse; flirtation, affection and courtship. Group-think vs. individual agency. Is a simple little one-dimensional life with rules covering everything even possible or desirable for us humans? ‘I am human, and I think nothing human is alien to me,’ said Terence Afer, the relevant, oft-quoted Roman-African playwright (195-159 BC).
But I digress. It remains that we live in suspicious and angry times. Identity politics, inventing ever more exclusive silos – longer than the alphabet – tend to emphasize our differences that drive us further apart; unlike the stated end-result of tolerance, universal inclusion and social justice, so far there doesn’t seem to be much of an inclination to emphasize our common humanity, our similar aspirations.
I wonder where this lively bus driver is now. Did he have a good life, overall? I’d like to tell him that I still fondly remember this tiny little two-second encounter we had that gave us both joy. That I’ve had the pleasure of being in the fun, soulful and warm company of many different Black people in various places of the world, throughout my life. That I read most of the important books, beginning with Franz Fanon, Marcus Garvey, W.E.B. DuBois and James Baldwin, via Alice Walker et al. to Ta-Nehisi Coates, John McWhorter and Isabel Wilkerson. Speaking of the latter: the most astounding take-home concept she raises in her book called ‘Caste, the Origins of our Discontent’ is that ‘there are no Blacks in Africa.’ It means that Black has never been a self-identifying concept for people living on that continent: one is either a Wollof, a Mandinka, a business person, a herder or farmer or a Kenyan, for example: skin colour has nothing to do with one’s identity there. Similarly, new European and Asian immigrants to the US had to accustom themselves to the idea of ‘whiteness’ and be dealt into the specific colour gradations at hand, willfully separating themselves from the lowest in the social hierarchy. ‘Black’ is a construct created by enslavers and refined during subsequent centuries by slaving nations as a political, economic, bureaucratic and social display of power, i.e. a white supremacy arrangement. Hence, if one accepts this theory as a historical truth, I can’t help but be taken aback – a controversial thought in these heady days? – whenever activists continue to emphasize their ‘Blackness’ in stark opposition to ‘Whiteness’ when, presumably, the ultimate aim is to gain full recognition as equals in a society where having black or white or yellow skin no longer defines who you are or what you do. Given that a uniform, unified ‘Black Community’ doesn’t exist, in the same way that a ‘White’ or ‘Chinese’ one doesn’t, I’m probably not the only one who would like to see the ultra-leftist rhetoric of ‘Black versus White’ change, because we don’t all think this is the best way to move forward. But perhaps that scenario is yet too far in the future. Today, the point apparently still needs to be made, over and over, to educate an unaware mainstream public about persisting racial (and also sexual) discrimination: it’s about the ‘bones’ of the matter, covered over by the layer of ‘skin,’ as Wilkerson puts it succinctly.
My imaginary sit-down with the now-elderly bus driver continues. He tells me a bit about his life and he’s still laughing, I presume. And I confess to him that from my first, 1971 visit to the United States and onward, I always found Black History the most interesting but confounding part of American History. How I traveled the by-roads of the Deep South, visiting with some impoverished black families in rural cabins, and walked the streets of Harlem – often against the advice of white Americans – to try to understand more of it. I’d also share stories about my winter spent in West Africa, living ‘local life’ in our host family’s traditional compound in The Gambia. How I admired these deeply cultivated, jet-black – almost purple-skinned – people’s regal elegance and gracious demeanor towards us. How they were knowledgeable about at least four if not more generations of ancestors, bringing home the essential difference between Africans and Black Americans who were cruelly deprived of their provenance, completely undone of their original identities. The only common denominator in the New World they shared, then, was of being ‘inhuman’ slaves, and having black skin, and the dominant, white population continued to drill this into their psyche for 250 years. And the notion still hasn’t disappeared, as we’re witnessing almost daily in the news. Is it bad of me to say these things? Are we now doomed to say nothing, to avoid each other out of fear of misunderstanding or an expectation of hidden motives?
I’m into jazz and many great players are Black of course: Blacks created the genre and steadily injected the history of American culture with huge amounts of creative energy. I draw, and I adore the way Black artists look. I wish I had hair like yours, so I could do these sorts of creative things with it, too – pure graphic design! I sat with you at the bar in NYC; we drank a little too much while we bantered and jived and got to know one another a bit. Why not? So what? Here’s a cross-over between the topics of physical attraction, energetic flirtation and Black culture: in the ’thirties and ‘forties there used to be an entire genre in popular music, blues and jazz that involved great lyrics of romantic and sexual pursuits with sometimes quite funny, double-entendre and even raunchy content. Try the Delta blues singer/guitarist Sam Chatmon, for example. Would this music be cancelled from the airwaves these days? Do we plan to continue to protect the public from great literature and art that contains this kind of ‘real’ subject matter?
And then there’s my dear friend Themba from Capetown. All my life, I refused to travel to South Africa, simply unwilling to be forced to go along with their (now former) political system and not being able to move around freely among its citizens. Until finally, in 2019, the opportunity arose to be there at the same time that he was visiting his family there. What a joy! He generously and magnanimously showed me all around the area, from his ‘Black point of view,’ the townships where he grew up as well as the luxurious ‘white’ neighbourhoods hugging Table Mountain. I had occasion to sit in vehicles, or simply on a log sometimes, with kind and gracious black South African men – guides, drivers, friends of Themba’s – who told me stories about atrocious indignities, and worse, suffered under Apartheid. Simply heartbreaking; nothing I could do but listen, be quiet, and cry. I felt honoured that these people trusted me enough to share their feelings with me, a white foreigner who merely showed an interest. There was no anger or hate in their speech. There never is in Themba’s, either. All of the people I happened to meet in South Africa were true to Mandela’s credo of universalism. I won’t forget these conversations; I hold them close to my heart.
Having been ‘on the ground’ in different areas of Africa, knowing a bit about the various circumstances and histories there, I also feel for African migrants trying to get into Europe in the most desperate but determined ways, only to be incarcerated for an indefinite time upon arrival. If I had a business, I’d hire them on the spot for their exceptional, proven drive, rather than have them ‘officially’ rot away in an asylum where they’d inevitably become frustrated to the max. Only to be accused later of bad behavior, their sheer existence invariably turned into a race issue once again. What a waste of human energy.
With you, dear bus driver, there was no misunderstanding, no fear of repercussion. Just life. An unjaded heart, glad to be alive, indulging in the Lightness of Being. To Black activists: I aim for our common humanity, not deliberately set myself apart from your experience, be willfully ignorant about it or avoid any connection altogether due to hype or fear. Much like you, I have a bunch of different, hard-earned credentials and don’t like to be dismissed, wholesale, just because my skin happens to be white. Together, we need to get off that track, the sooner the better. I’m willing to help in any way I can by intervening in situations of obvious ignorance or bad conduct affecting you, but it’s scary in the current climate of discourse: you can get punished all too easily for using the wrong words or doing the wrong thing. We’re told that meaning well is no longer good enough. You want us white people to understand you, but you keep telling us we can’t.
I know I’m sticking my neck out by writing this. Black Lives Matter is a movement I wholeheartedly support, except for the sometimes counterproductive, strident tone of some people on the ultra-left. It’s not about words. I believe that the current semantic ‘War of Words’ does nothing to actually advance the material and social wellbeing of less privileged people of colour. Folks of all stripes: remember that kindly Man on the Bus, calm down, let’s talk, not punish, we’re in it together. We’re working through it, albeit much too slowly. And don’t forget to have a laugh now and then. Wag more, bark less. Please!
(Title drawing: One of my favorite summer festivals in the City of Vancouver when it used to be held in New Brighton Park: the Caribbean Festival. All Islanders combined; heavy reggae blasting out from all kinds of competing soundsystems all over the site)